Posts Tagged ‘Peter Weir’

From the Hootoo archives. Originally published 4th December 2003:

It’s quite rare that many of the biggest and most successful films in a given year should share even a tenuous connection: but 2003 seems to be just such a beast, with two huge blockbusters united by their hearts of oak and the tang of brine in their nostrils. Only a churl could begrudge the revival of the maritime movie – well, only a churl or someone whose stock of naval jokes ran out about the same time Pirates of the Caribbean was released. Hey ho…

Sailing into view and hoping to emulate the success of Pirates and Finding Nemo comes Peter Weir’s hefty and unwieldily-titled 19th century adventure Master And Commander – The Far Side Of The World, wherein big Russell Crowe plays ‘Lucky’ Jack Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise. Also aboard are surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), who interestingly doesn’t turn out to be a figment of the captain’s imagination, and coxswain Barrett Bonden (Billy Boyd, who’s apparently in some piece of junk due out in a few weeks, and has seemingly gone all cockney on us). Ordered to hunt down a French warship, Crowe and his command get a severe mauling on their first encounter with it – but refusing to give up, Russ embarks on a pursuit that will take him and his ship halfway around the planet…

There’s been a lot of frankly quite excitable hype about this movie, mostly declaring it to effectively be Gladiator 2. It isn’t, to be honest, and I have to say I found it much more engaging and enjoyable than that. This isn’t a routine studio adventure but something more subtle and idiosyncratic. There really isn’t much of a plot, for one thing – the pursuit of the French ship merely provides the framework for a series of loosely-linked vignettes about shipboard life at this time in history. Suffice to say that before all is done and dusted, there’s time for sing-songs, iguana-spotting, the odd duet on violin and cello, grisly ad hoc brain surgery, cunning ruses, heroism, tragedy, and one really and truly shockingly bad pun (and as attentive masochists will know, that’s an informed opinion).

This certainly makes the film distinctive and the sheer level of detail makes the film highly absorbing (fans of Patrick O’Brian’s original novels may still be inclined to nitpick). But it also delivers when it comes to thrills and spectacle – there are two top-notch sea battles and a storm sequence that nearly made me seasick. The pace is, for the most part, expertly judged, and the only slightly peculiar note is struck by the ‘just another day at the office’ ending, which jars slightly with the epic nature of the main story.

But it’s the characters that bring the tale to life, and of course foremost amongst these is Aubrey, a towering performance from Crowe as a man who’s no stranger to compassion or self-doubt, but also exactly the person you want watching your back at the sharp end of a boarding action. Expect at least one of his rousing speeches to enter the cultural lexicon alongside ‘Are you not yet entertained?’ and other things like that. Bettany is very nearly as impressive in a much less showy part, and it’s to the credit of the actors that the friendship of two such very different men is credible throughout. All the cast are good, though, from Max Pirkis’ commendably non-schmaltzy turn as a very young officer, to David Threlfall’s quietly comic performance as Aubrey’s grumbling steward.

As you can probably tell I enjoyed Master And Commander enormously and in almost any other year I would happily have made it my preferred candidate for big time Oscar success. It is, admittedly, totally lacking in female characters and the plot is perhaps a bit too linear for some people’s tastes. But it’s enthralling, instantly convincing fun, and hugely impressive in every department. Highly recommended.

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Ah, what a great, iconic tale: victims of an oppressive, totalitarian regime, a motley band of dissidents and criminals escape from imprisonment in a bleak wasteland and set out to strike a blow for individual freedom. Fantastic material for a film there, especially if you’re multi-Award nominated film-maker Peter Weir. Unfortunately, the film rights for Blake’s 7 are already under option and so Weir has been obliged to search elsewhere for material for his new film, which he has nevertheless decided to call The Way Back.

(What an odd way to start a review, you may be thinking: it isn’t even that good a joke. Well, you may be right, but what the hell – some people may appreciate it. Let me know if you’re one of them!)

Anyway, this is an epic drama based on a supposedly true story (the events apparently happened, it’s just that nobody seems to be quite sure who they actually happened to). Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young Pole banished to the Siberian gulag at the height of the Second World War. There he befriends a mixed bag of other prisoners, mostly other political dissidents, and together they decide to make a break for freedom – no small thing, given the lethal hostility of the Siberian wilderness and the immense distances separating them from safety.

Amongst Janusz’s new companions are a grizzled American (Ed Harris) and a brutal Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), while in the course of their journey southward they meet another young Polish refugee, Irina (Saoirse Ronan). Their initial plan to follow the shore of Lake Baikal and cross the border into Mongolia runs into trouble and it becomes clear their only hope of freedom is to try to cross the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, with India as their ultimate goal.

Given the scope of the story and Weir’s track record when it comes to epic, yet engrossing dramas, I went to see The Way Back with high expectations. And it scores in a number of departments – the scenery and photography throughout is stunning, and the performances are honest and convincing.

However, while the scope of the story is stunning, the actual detail of it isn’t that involving. Fatally, some of the members of the escaping group remain rather anonymous until the journey is well underway, and they’re not that well delineated even then. Not a huge amount happens, either in terms of the group’s internal interactions or the things they encounter on the way. (For some reason, the actual escape itself takes place off-screen.) The film devolves into the characters wandering along, worrying about getting lost and finding things to eat and drink, with only the landscape going through any significant change.

None of the pictures from the film were that interesting or funny, so here's a photo of Blake's 7 instead. Hurrah!

That said, the movie isn’t cliched and I suspect most people will be surprised at the identities of the characters who fall by the wayside in the course of the trek. It does, however, jump through some startling narrative hoops when it comes to language – initially it’s all in subtitled Russian (fine by me, as it allowed me to check in on the deterioration of my rooski yazik), but abruptly switches to accented English a few minutes in. Fair enough, thought your reviewer, it’s a translation convention… but no! It’s made clear that for some reason the Poles and Russians and other eastern Europeans are all choosing to speak in English throughout most of their journey, which is considerate of them and fortunate for Harris’s character (and the audience). I’m being disingenuous, of course – there are very sound commercial reasons why this film isn’t in a foreign language. Personally I don’t worry that much about verisimilitude, though – but then again I’m not the National Geographic people, who produced this film…

I suspect that may be a bit of a metaphor for the problems with The Way Back – it frets a bit too much about mundane details and in doing so forgets about being appropriately sweeping and epic and moving. This is by no means a bad film, but I didn’t emerge particularly thrilled or uplifted or caring about the characters (though I did emerge with a few ideas for possible future holiday destinations). Not inappropriately given the subject matter, The Way Back is really a bit of a plodder.

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