Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Peter Weir and Keith Clarke
Cinematographer: Russell Boyd
by Jon Cvack
Here’s an underrated film that really dropped the ball with marketing, though I’m not completely sure what it could have done differently. I recalled seeing the preview, and thinking it was another generic survival film. Netflix had it recommended as a 3.1 star film, and it was only because I watched The Summit and K2: Siren of the Himalayas that was craving whatever other survival film I could find. It’s always a treat when Netflix is completely wrong, and often leaves you wondering what other films are part of the rare 1% failed algorithm. Seeing it was directed by Peter Weir (which I wasn’t aware of at any point and had no reason to look up), I should have known better.
First and foremost, this is an absolutely beautiful film, shot by Russell Boyd who hasn’t really been able to utilize his talent in all that many films. The shots are economic, very much inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, showing all of the grit and grime of the Gulag labor camps, portraying the true story of six WWII escapees who journey 4,000 miles across Siberia in search of freedom.
For economy’s sake, and on account of their power and presence in the film, I’ll focus on Janusz Wieszcik (Jim Sturgess), a spy whose wife turned against him after being raped into forfeiting his true intentions; Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) as the American, tough-as-nails father figure; and Valka (Colin Farrell), a tattoo laden Russian criminal who’s willing to kill anyone who so much as stands up to him, providing one of Ferrell's greatest roles. In a terrifying scene, Valka is gambling, falling further into depth, finally winning a man's sweater, who when refusing to hand it over, Valka stabs him dead.
Prior to their escape, Weir does an incredible job of illustrating life in the labor camp, where inmates are worked to exhaustion, completely expendable. Wieszcik is approached by fellow prisoner Khabarov (Mark Strong) who explains his method for escape, in which all he’s waiting for is the right moment. Mr. Smith warns that this is simply for Khabarov’s morale; as it’s easier for the man to survive by drawing others into fantastical plans of escape than ever giving it a go. Nevertheless, Wieszcik believes freedom is possible, and during a severe winter storm, where the men are forced to wade through the frigid and fast wind and freezing cold, the men take off through the woods, hoping that the thick snowfall will increase their chances of getaway. He’s followed by Mr. Smith, Volka, and the four other men.
The film has all the makings of a great survival film, where often the smallest moments of success are gain the most celebration. For instance, with little to no food, the men resort to eating whatever can provide nourishment; often the raw meat of anything that moves. We watch as the men fall victim to supreme exhaustion, with Weir allowing us to feel their pain in the way he captures the rigorous environment. Not knowing the story, when we hear that they “only” have to make it about a hundred miles to Lake Baikal, whose southern tip is the Mongolian border, we realize that this can’t possibly be the end of the journey, unsure how they could possibly go any further given how much they’re pushing themselves. Yet when they arrive they discover that Mongolia too has been taken over by the communists, where a large archway contains both the images of Stalin and Jadambaa portrayed in alliance. It’s then you realize that this movie is going to far exceed any expectations. Having already witnessed the extremities of survival, we know that the worst has yet to come.
Along the way, they meet a young girl Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who lies about her parents sending her to a Collective Farm back in Warsaw. Mr. Smith, ever intelligent and deeply observant (no matter his exhaustion) eventually gets the truth; that similar to Wieszcik, her parents were tortured and killed. Although a true story, I was hesitant that this was going to create some type of strange love story between the girl and Wieszcik. Instead, we see a very pure and honest father-daughter relationship bloom between her and Mr. Smith. When the men enter the desert, I was blown away by Weir’s ability to keep it his own. It’s hard not to see the influence of Lawrence of Arabia, but that’s also like saying it’s hard to avoid seeing Spielberg’s raw handheld in the best war films - it’s simply the greatest way to capture it. Anything less is unfair to the material.
BELOW: Valka's gambling strategy
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