Sunday, January 30, 2011

Taking the long way.

Dear Peter Weir,

I just wanted to say thank you for making the actors in your film The Way Back use the accents of the languages they're actually supposed to be speaking, instead of just having everyone use a sort of British-y accent so the audience knows they're foreign. How refreshing.

I was not really sure what to expect from The Way Back.  The book is based on the very popular  The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, published in 1956, which purports to tell the story of his escape from a Soviet gulag and slow trek through Mongolia and China on the way to India in the company of a polyglot group of prisoners. There have been serious doubts about the validity of Rawicz's story, including a lack of anyone who can corroborate his tale. However, a second survivor of the gulag system, Witold Glinski, claims that Rawicz and his ghostwriter stole his escape story.

Hugh Levinson produced a documentary for the BBC on The Long Walk, and while he doubts that Rawicz's tale is true, he did find shreds of evidence that someone made the trip, including a report from a British intelligence officer in India who claimed to have debriefed a group of emaciated Poles who arrived in India and reported that they had escaped from a Soviet gulag. Interestingly, some of the comments on the BBC site report similar tales of thousands-kilometers long treks to escape the Soviet prison system.

Whether or not Rawicz's particular tale is true, Weir has translated the story into a very visually arresting tale that keeps the tension high despite the lengthy running time. The landscapes in the movie are simply beautiful, from the rolling, white tree-covered hills of Siberia to the vast wasteland of Mongolia and the yellow dunes of the Gobi desert.

Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a Polish army officer who is denounced by his wife after she's tortured and sentenced to 25 years in the gulag after refusing to sign a confession of espionage. During a raging snowstorm, he and a handful of other prisoners escape, including Colin Farrell's tattooed, twitchy Russian criminal Valka and Ed Harris' bitter, stoic Mr. Smith. The Siberian forest quickly claims one of their party, but the men continue on until they cross paths with another runaway, Saoirse Rodan's Irena, one of the Polish "lost children" who were separated from their parents and shunted into Soviet orphanages. The group makes it to Mongolia, only to find that Communism has beaten them to it.

Nature is the group's real enemy. After a frenetic chase scene when they flee the gulag, they don't encounter any roving bands of Communist die-hards looking to arrest them and ship them back. Instead, they battle snow, wolves, starvation, heat, and thirst, becoming increasingly more haggard and desperate.

There are many beautifully framed scenes in the movie, including a few that are nearly Taymoresque, such as when Irena, wearing a hat woven out of sticks and clutching pale blue fabric to shield her from the sun, begins to resemble a Renaissance Madonna, or when one of the men wraps a soaked cloth around his head that reduces the contours of his face to a death mask. Weir does not devote a considerable amount of time to the relationships between the group and there is actually less fractiousness than one may expect from a Donner-party-on-steroids tale of survival. The members of the group show a remarkable amount of humanity towards one another, even the wolfish Valka, and their protectiveness towards the delicate Irena seems completely untinged by any sort of exploitation or violence.

The film's last sequence seems clunky and badly executed in comparison to the startlingly haunting cinematography that preceded it and the ending seems rather superfluous, but it is a fantastic story very beautifully told.

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