Peter Weir's The Way Back

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Postby Mister Tee » Tue Sep 07, 2010 9:33 pm

Variety, less enthused.

The Way Back

After nearly a seven-year absence, director Peter Weir makes his long-awaited return with "The Way Back," an impressive but not especially immersive true story of four POWs who escaped the Siberian Gulags and crossed the Himalayas on foot to freedom. Acquired by Newmarket Films immediately before its Telluride Film Festival debut, this arduous travelogue focuses on the macro (stunning, David Lean-like landscapes) and the micro (countless closeups of blistered flesh) to the virtual exclusion of compelling characters. While the name cast should aid overseas prospects, American auds won't be going out of their way to experience this long, dry slog.

Weir, who veers from the specifics presented in Slavomir Rawicz's book "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" due to controversies surrounding its authenticity, gave himself room to fictionalize the epic journey. But the director clearly finds the voyage more important than the voyagers, doing little to dramatically enhance the story's central group of escapees (which includes Jim Sturgess as an alleged Polish spy, Colin Farrell as a Russian mobster, Ed Harris as an enigmatic American and four other nondescript prisoners).

The film opens in Russia-occupied Poland, late 1939, to find Janusz (Sturgess) being denounced by his wife and sentenced to hard time in a remote Siberian labor camp -- a frozen hellhole where the elements are just as effective as the guns, dogs and fences at discouraging escape. Weir fills these scenes with gritty detail, creating a vivid picture of Gulag life in a relatively short time. Between the bedbugs, bad food and brutal company, it's easy to understand why Janusz would rather risk death on the outside, though Weir has another idea in mind: The protag must survive in order to get back to his wife (despite her betrayal), and the impossibly long journey will not end until he can do so (which explains not only the title,

but also a strange recurring vision of Janusz reaching for the front door of his home whenever things get tough).

Gathering half a dozen other prisoners, Janusz makes a break for it during a blizzard (we know from an ill-advised opening card that only three will make it as far as India). Driven by "kindness" and a need to forgive, Janusz immediately puts his survivalist skills to use on the outside, fashioning facemasks from birch bark and using tricks from his hunting days to steer them south.

The Russian guards give chase at first, but only for a few minutes, after which the suspense thaws in favor an all-too-linear account of the 4,000-mile hike. This takes the multinational group (whose conversation alternates between their native tongues and thickly accented English) around a mosquito-infested lake, across the Great Wall of China, through the Gobi Desert to Tibet and, finally, over the snow-capped Himalayas.

Along the way, Weir constantly shows the group hiding in bushes, as if to avoid detection by the communists they pass along the way, but it never feels as if they are in danger of being discovered. With no one in pursuit, the real adversary becomes nature itself, which threatens them with starvation, dehydration, hypothermia and a whole range of incredibly nasty foot injuries the director uses to reinforce the impression of unflinching realism.

The only person to pay them much mind is a parentless Polish girl ("The Lovely Bones'?" Saoirse Ronan), first seen lurking in the woods. When she begs to join them, the group's grizzled pragmatist (Harris) warns that she will become a liability, while Farrell's character (who resorts to eating bugs at one point) jokes that having more bodies could provide meat if things get dire. Fortunately, it never comes to cannibalism, and time soon endears the girl to the group. Despite Weir's efforts to make us care about the characters, the humans are constantly at risk of disappearing against the immensity of their surroundings.

The bigscreen craves images like those in "The Way Back," but audiences crave a reason to care, and however impressive specific scenes may be (crossing a sheet of thin ice and chasing a desert mirage stand out), for such a singular story, the film doesn't feel particularly unique. "Mongol" managed to out-Lean "The Way Back" on the same turf (offering Genghis Khan as our point of entry), while true cons-on-the-run thriller "Van Diemen's Land" told of an even more harrowing cross-country trek set in Weir's native Australia.

The roles not designated to stars (namely, an artist and a comedian in the group) often blur together, while the others keep their feelings hidden from one another. Harris' "Mr. Smith" and Janusz both have deep-seated motives for survival, which Weir doesn't reveal until too late.

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Postby Sonic Youth » Tue Sep 07, 2010 8:05 pm

Mister Tee wrote:Hollywood Reporter.

Do others really share Farber's ultra-high view of Weir as a director ("one of the world's master filmmakers")? I find him generally a mediocrity, and not-infrequently dull. This movie sounds like a strong contender for best film of 1966.

That was pretty strange. You don't expect such reverence from a trade critic. Usually they mention the "vet" status of such filmmakers with the air of professional distance, like the seasoned journalists they are. They don't usually gush.

I recall the last time I saw something like that in a trade review, and that was for the recently deceased Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut". At least they had an understandable reason.

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Postby Big Magilla » Tue Sep 07, 2010 4:11 pm

He won't be "contending" unless the distributor antes up for an Oscar qualifying run in L.A. and N.Y. and the costly Oscar campaign that goes along with it. So far he (or they) have refused to do so, promising only that the film will open in January.

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Postby Reza » Tue Sep 07, 2010 2:06 pm

Seems that Russell Boyd is going to be a contender along with Ed Harris.

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Postby Mister Tee » Tue Sep 07, 2010 1:22 pm

Hollywood Reporter.

Do others really share Farber's ultra-high view of Weir as a director ("one of the world's master filmmakers")? I find him generally a mediocrity, and not-infrequently dull. This movie sounds like a strong contender for best film of 1966.

The Way Back -- Film Review
By Stephen Farber, September 06, 2010 06:55 ET
"The Way Back"Bottom Line: Epic filmmaking hits most of the right notes.
TELLURIDE -- Peter Weir is rightly regarded as one of the world's master filmmakers, but he has not made a movie since 2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," which surely reflects the growing challenges for directors who choose to follow an uncompromising artistic path in today's constricted cinematic universe. "The Way Back," which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, is a harrowing epic that will not be an easy sell, but it finds Weir again working at the top of his game.

As a technical achievement, the film -- which ranges from the gulags of Siberia to the Gobi Desert -- is astonishing, but it also showcases powerful themes that make it unexpectedly moving and resonant.

The script by Weir and Keith Clarke (also the producer who helped to shepherd the project through a decade of development) is inspired by true stories of a few people who escaped from Stalinist labor camps. But Weir emphasizes that the characters in the film are fictional.

The Polish protagonist, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), is introduced in the opening scene in 1940, when he is interrogated by a Soviet officer who accuses him of espionage. Janusz refuses to confess to the false charges, but when his wife is tortured and informs against him, Janusz is shipped off to the gulag. There he encounters a number of other disaffected prisoners, including an American engineer (Ed Harris), who came to Russia during the 1930s, and a hardened criminal (Colin Farrell), all bent on escape.

The security system at the gulag is not overwhelmingly efficient because, as the commandant informs the new arrivals, the biggest deterrent to escape is the unyielding natural environment that surrounds the prison.

The least effective parts of the movie are the early scenes in the prison camp, partly because these grim scenes are reminiscent of many other movies, and also because it takes time to distinguish the important characters, many of them played by unknown Russian or Polish actors. After the first half-hour, however, when Janusz leads a group of seven prisoners into the freezing Siberian forest, the film begins to build in intensity. You know that not all of the prisoners will reach their destination, but the fates of the individual characters are always surprising and poignant. Along the way they also meet a teenage orphan girl (beautifully played by "The Lovely Bones" star Saoirse Ronan), whom they reluctantly allow to join their trek.

Working with one of his favorite cinematographers, Russell Boyd, Weir captures the startlingly varied landscapes that mark their long journey. Among the highlights are the stunning desert scenes (actually filmed in Morocco). Weir and Boyd have clearly taken a look at "Lawrence of Arabia," but to say that their images bear comparison with that masterpiece is high praise indeed. A sequence in which the characters pursue a mirage that might or might not lead them to water will be remembered alongside the first appearance of Omar Sharif in "Lawrence." A fierce sandstorm that follows is equally memorable.

Beyond its visual splendors, however, the film achieves searing moral power. The most profound question it raises is whether a good man can play a meaningful role during a time of widespread evil. In the prison camp, Harris recognizes that Janusz might be an asset during their journey because he senses that Janusz's "kindness" could aid their survival. Janusz is determined to make it home not because he wants to save his own skin, but because he wants to forgive his wife for the betrayal that he knows was forced on her. Janusz's nobility is not oversold, but it helps to sustain all of the prisoners during their savage journey, and it provides an anchor for the audience as well.

The film's stirring concept depends on the performance of Sturgess, who really has the starring role and subtly conveys the soul of a decent man. Harris also gives a superb performance as a bitter man who reclaims his own humanity during the long march. Farrell bravely highlights the loutish ignorance of a hardened thug whose stubborn loyalty to Comrade Stalin is one of his most surprising traits.

All of the production credits are first-rate. One might question a coda that teeters on the edge of sentimentality. This film has its flaws, but it still stands as a major achievement by one of the great directors of our time.

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Postby Sabin » Sat Sep 04, 2010 6:49 pm

Telluride Review: The Way Back
Cinematical's Eugene Novikov

Peter Weir's The Way Back enters the canon of survival films as perhaps the most sadistically intent on making you feel as much of its subjects' physical agony as possible. Despite its impeccable awards pedigree and prestige pic status, it may be too straight-up harrowing to get much traction, either with the Academy voters or at the box office. For those with the fortitude to take the plunge, it offers an intense, morally thorny exploration of the limits of human endurance.

Weir, the great Australian director of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, and The Truman Show, is notoriously selective with his projects, and makes a film a couple times a decade. This purportedly true story, based on the ghostwritten memoir of Slavomir Rawicz (called The Long Walk, not to be confused with the great early Stephen King novella), obviously means a lot to Weir, and the movie gleams with painstaking effort. According to Rawicz, he and his companions escaped a Siberian gulag in 1940 and crossed the continent due south – on foot, armed with a single knife and one sack's worth of food – to emerge from the Himalayas into India in 1941.

The veracity of Rawicz's account has been widely questioned, but no matter – true stories rarely make great movies anyhow. The Way Back rockets forward with the urgency and authenticity of real life. It begins in Soviet-occupied Poland, as a military officer named Janusz (the film's stand-in for Rawicz, played by the young English actor Jim Sturgess) is interrogated and then sent to Siberia after his wife is tortured into incriminating him. One of the year's most powerful scenes, this stunner of an opening telegraphs the film's merciless, unflinching approach. There's no physical violence on the screen, but Weir punches us in the gut simply by training his camera on Janusz's face as his eyes fill with fear, which turns to horror and then anger.

The gulag is torture. Desperately malnourished men fell trees in the brutal cold or slave in poisonous gold mines. The guards inform them that it is not fences, guards, guns or dogs that make up their prison, but the murderous snow-swept isolation of Siberia. Inspired by a fellow political prisoner (Mark Strong) who latter turns out to be all talk, Janusz quickly hatches a plot to cut the electrical wire and, during a snowstorm that will cover their tracks, hoof it thousands of kilometers south to Lake Baikal. A subset of the few prisoners who have retained some semblance of a will to live – including an American expat (Ed Harris), a Russian hooligan with Stalin's face tattooed on his chest (Colin Farrell), a priest (Gustaf Skarsgard), an artist (Alexandru Potocean), and a teenage boy (Sebastian Urzendowsky) – come along. Uncommonly terse title cars at the beginning of the film inform us that only three men ultimately make it to India.

The first half of The Way Back is Peter Weir at his hypnotic best. Always adept at breathing life into landscapes – see the frightening outback vistas of Gallipoli, the mythic Central American jungle of The Mosquito Coast, and even the idyllic false suburbia of The Truman Show – Weir all but personifies Siberia and (later) the Mongolian desert. They seem threateningly to keep pace with our human protagonists. The snow-covered trees and scorching sand dunes become the terrain of an alien planet. The mines of the gulag are a steam-spitting horrorshow scarier than anything in The Lord of the Rings. The film is extraordinary at seeing these places as its characters would; even the sweeping bird's-eye views seem like an expression of their fear.

The men's flight poses moral dilemmas. Colin Farrell's hardened, cynical hooligan suggests, to Janusz's horror, that the advantage of having recruited a half-dozen fellow travelers is that they will have something to eat when things get rough. They encounter a helpless teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan), similarly on the run and wonder if they can afford to save her life. People start dying. When someone is clinging to his last breaths and can no longer move, at what point do you forsake hope and tend to those who still have a chance?

All of this makes for an intense, unpleasant experience. This is particularly true in the last hour, which depicts an unremitting fight for survival and turns rather mechanical and repetitive in the process. It becomes, essentially, a series of obstacles and milestones: nomads, thirst, the desert, a sandstorm; Mongolia, China, Tibet. The moral ambiguity drains from the film, and Weir's artistry seems to take a back seat to depicting the men's ordeal in as much horrifying, you-are-there detail as possible. Which is engaging and gut-wrenching, but not quite as interesting.

The Way Back brings a lot of talent and a tremendous amount of craft to a movie that will be too painful for most people to endure. There is nothing reassuring about it; no triumph-of-the-human-spirit comfort. The story of these men is "inspiring," but only in the grimmest possible way. The film suggests that it's always darkest just before the dawn – if the dawn comes at all.

...looks good. Or at least of interest. But will it open in time for consideration?

Deadline Hollywood
Weir's 'The Way Back' Has Telluride World Premiere: But Will Oscar Campaign Follow?
By Pete Hammond | Friday September 3, 2010 @ 6:09pm PDT

TELLURIDE: Peter Weir’s The Way Back is about an epic journey of survival, an appropriate metaphor for the film’s own treacherous journey through the current wobbly state of the movie industry which just didn’t seem to know what to do with this stunning adventure, the kind of movie Hollywood used to make all the time. Finally yesterday, as many were arriving for the Telluride Film Festival, Newmarket announced it will handle the film for U.S. release just after the first of the year. It coincided with Telluride's career tribute to Weir today and the World Premiere (the only fall festival slot for the film) tonight. My interview with Weir is below.

Produced under the Exclusive Films label (which owns Newmarket) and co-produced by National Geographic Entertainment and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, Weir's The Way Back is currently planned for a fairly wide break on over 600 screens on January 21, according to Newmarket’s VP of acquisitions John Crye. It’s a particularly aggressive rollout for the indie company whose past distribution successes have included such award magnets as Memento, Monster, Whale Rider, and Mel Gibson’s controversial blockbuster The Passion Of The Christ. With this kind of DNA, it would seem natural that part of the master plan would also include a late December Oscar qualifying run. But both Crye and a PR rep for the film would only say that is a distinct possibility even though they acknowledge the film deserves one.

Perhaps Newmarket is waiting for reaction and reviews out of Telluride. But, c’mon, it’s unheard of to open a prestigious film like this from a 6-time Oscar nominee (4 in the directing category) with a cast including Ed Harris (here in Telluride for the premiere), Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) in the middle of January without trying to get some of Oscar’s fairy dust sprinkled on it. At the very least, the breathtaking and challenging cinematography of longtime Weir collaborator Russell Boyd, already an Oscar winner for Weir’s most recent film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 2003) would seem a slam dunk. But the film has many other attributes as well, including those actors and Weir’s impeccable direction. Which is why Telluride Fest directors Gary Meyer and Tom Luddy said the film was an obvious choice the minute they saw it.

When I talked to Peter Weir earlier today in advance of his career tribute and the World Premiere tonight, he thought an Oscar run would seem likely. “I can’t imagine why not,” he says. “But it all comes down to money. You have to pay for a campaign and I have worked so long with studios [that] this independent system is new to me.” The 66 year veteran, previously nominated four times -- for directing Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander (2003) -- told me it was just a relief that, in this uncertain time in the industry, his labor of love was getting a theatrical release. Especially after the beautifully crafted epic adventure was rejected out of hand by several possible distributors, not an atypical story filmmakers tell today.

He says, “One [studio exec] said, ‘We aren’t in that kind of business anymore.’ I thought what kind of business? Show business?” He believes there is no way he could have gotten his last film, Master and Commander made now, just seven years later. “We just squeaked in on that one. The gate is now closed.” Weir got to the point where he became genuinely worried it might go directly to DVD, a thought that sends shivers down his spine but is a reality for major directors now working in the not-so-brave new indie environment.

There was talk last spring that the film would be in the Cannes Film Festival in May -- and Weir confirms it could have been. “It was ready for Cannes. But the talk was what is the market, especially for a drama which is an extremely chancy genre now. Few are offered, few succeed. It’s a big conversation going on in the world of film. Is audience taste changing? It seems to have fallen out of fashion. I think the fantasy film has usurped this kind of adventure.”

Weir notes that distributors were considering many factors to find the best window of opportunity. Do they go to Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Sundance? Do they look toward the end of the year when there is such a crowded field all competing for the prestige slots? “Everybody dreams they will be this year’s Hurt Locker,” Weir adds. “You go out into this independent marketplace, and push and shove and jostle to find a spot so that’s a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, it’s challenging to find that path out to the public. It was pre-sold in European territories but I think people get naturally nervous.”

Weir's film, set in 1940, does have a bleak atmosphere and is not an obvious sell for today’s "what’s the easy hook?" movie marketing. But it tells a fascinating tale of a small group of multinational prisoners who escape a snowy Siberian gulag. Their impossible trek of thousands of miles through five different dangerous countries follows. Although it’s been fictionalized, it is inspired by the real-life tale of three men who turned up in India one day after reportedly making a similar journey.

It’s ironic that Weir was the recipient of BAFTA’s David Lean Award For Direction in 2004 because, if anything, The Way Back is reminiscent of the kind of ambitious and sweeping epic in which Lean excelled. Of course, if Lean were working in today’s film industry, he probably wouldn’t be working.

Weir is happy that filmmaker-centric Telluride was chosen to premiere his film, and is honored to be the subject of a tribute and to have a non-CGI’d movie here that stands tall in his long career. “If you can sit here as I can and say, 'That is the film I wanted to make,' what happens after is just fate, luck, and timing. This is a film about survival, and I am very interested in that kind of subject.”

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