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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.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival (Newmarket)
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong
Director: Peter Weir
Screenwriters: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke
Based on the book by: Slavomir Rawicz
Producers: Joni Levin, Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson, Nigel Sinclair
Executive producers: Keith Clarke, John Ptak, Guy East, Simon Oakes, Tobin Armbrust, Jake Eberts, Edward Borgerding, Mohamed Khalaf, Adam Leipzig, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Schwartz
Director of photography: Russell Boyd
Production designer: John Stoddart
Music: Burkhard Dallwitz
Costume designer: Wendy Stites
Editor: Lee Smith
No rating, 130 minutes
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