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18 San Diego Uptown News | Feb. 4-17, 2011


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Jim Sturgess (in mask) leads POWs on a 4,000-mile trek in “The Way Back.” (Photo courtesy of Newmarket Films)



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POW voyage soars but doesn't fly

“The Way Back” Directed by Peter Weir Written by Keith R. Clarke and Peter Weir based on the novel “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Free- dom” by Slavomir Rawicz Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan Rating: H

How do you take a true story

about a group of escapees from a Siberian gulag that trek 4,000 miles overland to find freedom in India and make it dull? Begin by calling into question the historical veracity of the source material, and second attach writer/director Peter Weir‘s name to the project. And with Na- tional Geographic Films as one of the film’s producers, all you need do is substitute Poles for penguins and this rapidly disintegrates into “March of the POWs.” For years there had been a

storm of controversy surround- ing Slavomir Rawicz’s best-selling book, “The Long Walk” (1952). Was it an autobiography or a page- turning potboiler? In 2006, a BBC investigative report unearthed documentation (some in Rawicz ‘s own words) that proved the author

did not escape in 1941 as his book alleged; rather, he was released from the Soviet prison in 1942 and could not possibly have led the march.

Even if “The Way Back” was based on actual experiences, leave it to Peter Weir (“Fearless,” “The Truman Show”) to transform truth into truisms. Instead of taking us on a soaring adventure of the triumph of the human spirit, Weir leads his cast (and audience) by the hand through a wilderness of handsomely photographed clichés. White letters on a black screen clearly spell out the long and short of it: “They had survived a 4,000- mile walk to freedom.” What is the purpose of spilling a film’s intend- ment and outcome before so much as one character is introduced? Why not begin with, “Hey, stupid! Here is what you’ll be staring at for the next 133 minutes?“ Janusz (Jim Sturgess) draws a 20-year sentence after the Soviets strong-arm his wife into revealing an incriminating statement. Inside the forced-labor camp, the young Pole encounters world weary American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and Valka (Colin Far-

rell), the psycho Russian. Smith is taken by the kid’s gentleness and cautions him to toughen up “be- cause kindness can kill you here.” Together they form the most congenial band of gulag-dodgers ever to hit the screen. John Wayne would sooner take a false step than Janusz. Even Valka—who is shown to be the type of guy who would take the sweater off your back only after he put a knife through your chest—turns out to be a surpris- ingly agreeable traveling compan- ion.

Harris leads the pack with his commanding performance. Colin Farrell’s generally commendable taste in scripts seems to have taken a brief vacation. Apart from a few initial blow-ups there is not a whole hell of a lot for him to do. Jim Sturgess‘ buttoned up brand of passive intensity worked to his advantage in “Heartless,” but there is nothing in this heroic Pole that made me care one way or the other. Any cheers I emitted when the houselights went up had more to do with my eagerness to exit the theater—not the characters with whom I was just dragged through hell with.

It would be both easy and

incorrect to say “The Way Back” goes nowhere. An incongruous recurring shot of a window sill with a large rock parked on it acts as the film’s MacGuffin as well as the key to Janusz’s ultimate act of kindness. It’s a brilliant capper to a film that otherwise leaves one questioning whether or not this trip was really necessary. “The Way Back” is currently playing exclusively at Reading’s Gaslamp 15.u

(l to r) Colin Farrell and Ed Harris star in 'The Way Back.' (Photo cour- tesy of Newmarket Films)

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