Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Way Back Machine

World War II movies are a tricky business. There's nobody that will deny the cultural and historical significance of the war on the entire world, so changed was most of human society by the events the war brought. That alone makes films about the war popular and almost guaranteed money-makers. The problem with that is that there's no guarantee of quality when it comes to these films. Pearl Harbor is a perfect example of a WWII film that made gobs of dough solely on the patriotic message the film portrayed, and certainly not on any quality film-making. Since WWII films are so popular and populous, they basically construct a genre all their own, one which seemingly every year add more titles to the roll call. That alone put The Way Back on my radar, and it's trailer was intriguing enough to get me into the theater this past Monday and check it out. With a talented director in Peter Weir and a strong acting cadre, the film seemed like more than those similar titles littering the WWII landscape could aspire to.

Guess which ones won't be making it home to momma?
Beginning at a cold Siberian gulag, The Way Back is based on the book The Long Walk by Swladomir Rawicz, depicting his alleged escape from sed gulag on a 4,000 mile walk to India and freedom. Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a Polish political prisoner, arrested after the Russian invasion of Poland for conspiring against Mother Russia. When torture doesn't get him to confess, the authorities torture his wife to make her give him up, and before long Janusz is shipped off to Siberia and a labor camp that holds men from several nationalities oppressed by the Communist state. After a few months, a severe snowstorm presents the perfect opportunity for Janusz and some of his friends in the camp to make a break for it, beginning their long walk to freedom.

Quote me on this: "Ed Harris in his ugliest role yet."
While the cruelty of the Germans during World War II is practically legendary - most notably their treatment of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and other minority groups - and German Prisoner of War camps enjoy popularization in film and television from The Great Escape to Hogan's Heroes, it's often glossed over just how practically evil Josef Stalin's regime was in the east. Any region conquered by the Soviet Union at that point was absorbed into its girth and the people mercilessly manhandled by a nation bent on global domination. And so a variety of nationalities ended up at these camps, many for political crimes such as preaching religion or conspiring against the state, and many Yugoslavs, Latvians, Poles, Americans and Russians are held at these camps far from civilization for simply getting on Stalin's bad side. That aspect made this film unique even among similar films by focusing on an aspect of the war most people don't think of.

Bet they're not expecting the Spanish Inquisition
The pacing of the film feels uneven at times. The scenes in the camp early on feel rushed, as the film attempts to introduce us to our prospective escapees in a timely manner so as to get the main story underway quickly. Unfortunately, that makes for the worst part of the movie, as some of the characters are not very distinguishable early on, and the result is a mishmash of scenes that don't really make sense until much later on. It's not a complete throwaway, but when you compare it to the seemingly endless distant shots of characters walking across forbidding landscapes, you wish a bit more time had been invested in the opening. Over the course of the film the characters thankfully become much more detailed, and any fear of confusing people becomes far less likely.

Bet Russia's beginning to look real good right now...
The cast also manages to be one of the strongest I've seen in any film of late. Sturgess, who I'd enjoyed in the gambling thriller 21, is amazing as Janusz, the impromptu leader of this motley crew of misfits and malcontents. He seems to be a natural when it comes to using the wilds to survive, and while no background is given as to why that would be the case, he still makes for a believable leader and a compelling and charismatic main character. Ed Harris is surly and strong as the American Smith, a man so beaten down my personal tragedy that he has become solely focused on personal survival, and while you are saddened when any of the film's characters dies, Smith is the one you keep actively wishing to go on. That's the power of Harris's performance. Colin Farrell plays Valka, a professional Russian criminal who forces his way onto the crew to avoid a gambling debt in prison. Farrell, long an under-appreciated actor by film goers, has possibly the most fun on this cast as a man who has done evil things and the experience allows him to see the darkness in others. Saoirse Ronan is also amazing as Irena, a young Polish teen the group takes in. I've never seen Ronan in anything before, though she had been nominated for a Golden Globe (for Atonement), and seeing this makes me want to go back and see her earlier work. It also makes me excited for the upcoming Hanna, which I saw a trailer for the same day. Other standouts include Dragos Bucur as an accountant with a strange sense of humor, Skarsgard family member Gustaf as a former priest, and Mark Strong as a former actor who initially plans the escape. It's to the film's credit that every character represented is interesting and unique, making those people who would be cannon fodder in lesser films into real humans, especially when you know not all of them will be making it home.

Remember when Colin Farrell was a big deal? Me either.
While the lack of success in the box office was a little suspicious in my eyes, The Way Back thankfully turned out to be almost as good as I'd hoped. There are the aforementioned pacing issues, but for the most part it works itself out over the film's two-plus hours. The settings are extraordinarily beautiful, even with the promises of probable death brought with it. That can be attributed to National Geographic's involvement in the film's production. With amazing acting and a powerful story of human strength, The Way Back would probably be #1 on my list of films for 2011, had it qualified. Unfortunately, the film was released briefly in late 2010 to qualify for award nominations, and while it did garner an Oscar nom, it was only for Best Makeup. As good a movie as it is, however, I'll still pop it in as #9 on my list of 2010's Best Movies. Definitely worth seeing, if you can work it in.


brian said...

"World War II movies are a tricky business. There's nobody that will deny the cultural and historical significance of the war on the entire world, so changed was most of human society by the events the war brought. That alone makes films about the war popular and almost guaranteed money-makers. The problem with that is that there's no guarantee of quality when it comes to these films."

Are you referring to WWII films post 'Saving Private Ryan' or ALL WWII films? No film is ever guaranteed to be quality.

THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

But Gianni, are you implying that "NOBODY expects the Spanish Inquisition!"??

Gianni said...

I guess I should have worded that more properly. For the importance WWII represents, it seems every filmmaker wants to tackle it to some degree. Such a large number of films dedicated to that war in particular has a few gems, but otherwise the vast majority set in that period are slag and junk. However, many of even the bad movies are hugely successful because they appeal to a WWII-loving demographic, and therefore there seems to be a big difference between how many WWII films are GOOD and how many make tons of money. True, no film is guaranteed to be good, but WWII seems to create this air of legitimacy despite the film's actual qualities.

Speaking of Saving Private Ryan... definitely overrated, though it is fun to watch and from a technical standpoint the atmosphere and effects are amazing.