Friday, February 25, 2011

Best Makeup: "The Way Back"

Peter Weir’s new World War II adventure movie, The Way Back, is being presented by National Geographic Entertainment. That seems appropriate, because the movie is loaded with awe-inspiring scenery. It has an all-star cast and an absorbing narrative, but it never fully engages our emotions.

Jim Sturgess, the gifted young British actor from Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, plays Janusz, a Polish prisoner of war who’s convicted of espionage and sentenced to 20 years hard labor in a Soviet camp. There, he meets an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a Russian hood named Valka (Colin Ferrell). The men escape and make a seemingly impossible journey through the snows of Siberia, over the Himalayas and into India. Did I mention they walk the whole way?

The movie is pictorially riveting, especially the early scenes in the labor camp. The men huddle together in the mines and in cramped living spaces, their shaved heads glimmering in the dark. The movie loses some of its spark during the initial stretch of the journey. Most cinematic odysseys (like Cold Mountain and Into the Wild) rely on the introduction of new characters, but the escaped inmates in The Way Back are walking from, uh, Siberia. Not a lot of people to meet out there (or so I’ve heard).

The story finally comes to life again when the men meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a spirited teenage runaway. “Don’t you talk to each other?” Irena asks her less-than-loquacious comrades. “In the camps,” Mr. Smith answers, “you learn to speak as little as possible.” While that’s probably true, it doesn’t make for very compelling characters. The script tends to sacrifice drama on the altar of realism.

One of Australia’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Weir has made movies that have basically haunted me all my life (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society, Fearless, The Truman Show). He failed to move me with this one. His previous effort, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, showed a similar flair for exacting verisimilitude. But it also gave us a captivating human drama to get caught up in, bringing Captain Jack Aubrey and his naturalist friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, to vivid life.

Admittedly, I have a bias against these kinds of Westernized international pictures. They always feature nonsensical performances like the one by Colin Farrell, an Irish actor playing a Russian criminal speaking in broken English (“I know about survive – all my life”). There’s only so much slack you can give to a movie like this.

The movie’s sole Oscar nomination is for Best Makeup. Hair and makeup artists Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng do a remarkable job of showing us the physical effects of the journey, in the form of chapped lips, swollen feet and bruised faces. Henriques and Toussieng were nominated for Master and Commander but lost to The Return of the King. I think this year’s winner will also be a movie in the sci-fi & fantasy genre. I’ll discuss it in my next post.

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