Saturday, January 22, 2011
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I mentioned this in an earlier post but to summarise: I almost had a chance to be part of the inception of this movie, if only I had been more daring. I had read the book "The Long Walk" by Slawomir Rawicz back in 2007, had tried to pitch it with the help of one of the executives there to the CEO of the production company in Hollywood where I was interning, but it didn't impress and so that was that ... until I saw the trailer of this movie. Talk about missed opportunities. (Disclaimer: doesn't mean that if I did manage to push the movie through, it would've been produced, or would've been successful, or that I would've gotten some sort of credit on the film ... even if I do think about that last one.)
Suffice to say, obviously I can't be objective about the movie in its current incarnation.
Now I haven't read the book since 3-4 years ago so I can't fully remember all the details (though I do have the book on my work desk now), but I do remember the broad strokes of that story, and in this case the movie stuck to it mostly faithfully – except the very beginning and the very end, which I'll get to later.
The story itself is about a group of prisoners, who each have personal stories of how they were unjustly arrested by the Soviet authorities in a Communist society that is increasingly hungry to chew up and dispose of elements that sway more than a few degrees from the designated way of life, made a daring escape from a Siberian gulag and walked 4,000 miles to India – that is, across wintry steppes, wet forests, harsh deserts and through challenging mountain passes. That is a remarkable story in itself, and the fact that it's populated by interesting characters, and not all of them make it, means the story, the plot is solid, even before the first word is penned for the screenplay.
Peter Weir is, of course, a dependable director – he of Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World. The film that resulted under him is a technically excellent one, but unfortunately, not a memorable one.
They had casted excellent actors – from Jim Sturgess to Saoirse Ronan to Colin Farrell to Ed Harris to the other less-known Baltic and Scandinavian actors – and they did exactly what the story needed them to do, that is, look dirty and skinny and demoralised and like they're about to die of starvation and exhaustion half the time.
The pacing, however, didn't fare so well. There is often a slight sensation that the movie dragged, which is odd considering we are constantly looking at beautifully captured, awe-inspiring landscapes – whether it's to the characters' benefit or not – as the ragtag runaways traverse one landscape upon another. It's perhaps due to the rather episodic nature of the story; there are a lot of scenes in the movie, more so than even the average adventure movie, but they don't really affect each other. Something happens here, they move on; then something happens there, they deal with it and move on. Do we get to know the characters better? Sure, but I think not enough, and so we don't sympathise enough. One particular death in the movie was rather underwhelming emotionally, when I had imagined while reading the book that it would've easily wrenched the guts out of the audience. Perhaps my expectations were too high.
Obviously one couldn't transfer everything that was described in the book onto the screen, but one glaring omission was the escape from the gulag itself. When I was reading the book, the few pages describing their stealthy, suspenseful crawl to the edge of the prison, and then having to cut their way out without the dangling icicles from the barb wire making a noise, all that stuff, was the thing that I still remember today. That could easily have been the emotional highlight of the film – I had imagined a 10-minute, terrifyingly tense sequence, which would then provide the rest 70% of the movie with that quality of cathartic denouement that usually lasts the last five minutes of a typical movie, as if the long walk to India, however terrible will be and whatever tragedies struck, is the relief itself. That, to me, was an interesting idea that would make this adventure story different from the others; though, I admit it's definitely not an easy thing to pull off, as it is such a precise thing to aim for.
[Spoilers here.] Then there's the framing device that Weir and his co-writer chose to use: the wife. To begin with they changed the names of some of the characters, including that of the autobiographer of this story who instead goes by Janusz, indicating that they meant to diverge from the story told by Slawomir Rawicz – though again, they did stick closer than the average Hollywood film would've to their original or true stories because this story is already so incredible. Which is fine. But what I thought didn't work enough was having the wife betray Janusz and so make her the reason why he is a political prisoner, but having him be such a kind soul that he is not angry with her and making this journey about him travelling home so that he can forgive her ... well, I didn't buy it. The film didn't really touch upon this theme much, except for one conversation between Janusz and Mister Smith (Ed Harris) – and this is supposedly a major theme, because the ending has Janusz going back to Poland to find his wife four decades later after the fall of Communism. Again, I could be biased, because in fact Rawicz never made it back to Poland, but ended up in England after the war where he married an Englishwoman and raised a family of his own there, though the demons from the torture and the trek never left him until the day he died. The way the film had Janusz returning to his wife in the end just smells to me like it was groping for a false happy ending and felt too sentimental for my taste. I would've preferred the movie to stay a bit longer in India, and end there. [Spoilers end.]