March 2011

Arts & Letters

Economies of scale

By Helen Garner
Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ and Leon Ford’s ‘Griff the Invisible’

Epic is one word people resort to when confronted by a tale like the one Peter Weir tackles in his new movie, The Way Back. Seven prisoners escape from a Siberian labour camp in the winter of 1940. They trudge to the Mongolian border, then across a stony desert, through Tibet and over the Himalayas into India, a walk of 4000 miles that takes almost a year.

The material came to Weir through Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 memoir, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. A hint of doubt emerged around the authenticity of the book, but it must still have seemed to Weir a worthy story, one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit extravaganzas that some directors yearn to get their teeth into, and so he pressed on with the project, despite what I imagine as a dawning realisation that he had bitten off way more than he could chew.

The opening scene, in a Soviet prison, is pretty much the only one in which Weir shows the mastery we’d expect from the Australian director of Witness, Fearless and Master and Commander. In a few sickening strokes he makes us care about his central character, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a bashed and bloodied young Pole, whose refusal to sign a faked confession of espionage collapses when his wife is dragged before him in a state as brutalised as his own, and gives him up. “Oh,” he cries out, “what have they done to you?” Cut to an aerial shot of a bleak Siberian waste. Weir has us in his palm right there, and spends the remaining two hours of the film letting us slide between his fingers.

How did it come to this? His biggest problem is a modern audience’s ignorance of twentieth-century Russian history. Your average western cinema-goer is familiar enough with Hitler and the Holocaust for a screenwriter on that subject to relax and take it for granted that certain basic understandings are shared. For complex and shaming reasons, this is not so with the enormities of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Thus, when young Janusz lines up in falling snow with hundreds of other ragged prisoners in the remote labour camp, the commandant has to encapsulate the facts of their situation in a way that sets up the scenario for the audience as well. “Enemies of the people!” he shouts (in Russian, with subtitles). “Five million square miles is your prison. If that doesn’t kill you, the locals will. There’s a bounty on the head of every fugitive.”

Right. Got it. But it creaks, and the first prickle of resistance runs down my spine.

How will decent men like Janusz and his fellow politicals survive among these knife-wielding murderers and thieves, with barbed wire tattooed across their low brows and likenesses of Lenin and Stalin carved into their chests? In the foul huts, while others smoke or draw or pray, the criminals will stab a man for his sweater, or to settle a gambling debt; yet, in another of the film’s rare touching moments, they sit absorbed while one of them relates from memory the crude outlines of Treasure Island.

Speech in this kind of film presents intractable difficulties. The main characters converse in English, accented according to ethnic origin, while minor or unnamed ones speak Russian or Polish with subtitles. Prisoners turn aside from their labour to philosophise in didactic and high-flown language. They use expressions like “the yearning for freedom” or “from the far reaches of the Soviet Empire”. They warn each other that Stalin “has eyes and ears everywhere”, and that they are likely to die in this place, “if not literally, in spirit”. Line by clunking line, they become mouthpieces to instruct us and, while we are distracted by the competence or otherwise of their dialogue coaches, characterhood drains out of them, leaving generic husks.

And yet I don’t know if epic is supposed to have characters, or not in the way movie-goers have learnt to conceive them. Epic has to be broad. It must sweep and sprawl. It has no time to be delicately psychological. So, once the seven men crawl under the wire in a blizzard and make their break, it becomes a struggle – for Weir and for us – to maintain any sense of them as individuals. Ed Harris, playing Mr Smith, an American communist who has made the fatal blunder of bringing his young son to live in Russia, has one of those elemental faces on which meaning is scored in an annoying mythical shorthand. The Russian crim (Colin Farrell), with his gruesome tatts and big knife, is useful for butchering animals but could go berserk at any minute. The rest, even Janusz, soon lose definition.

On their way through a forest they pick up Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a lost teenager who has been trailing them. You flinch for her but, though the vulnerable girl is no more satisfying as a character than are the men, she pays her way as a narrative device: her presence calls forth their nobility, and she also serves as a questioner and listener, drawing out neglected backstory from the reticent men.

Boredom is not quite the word for the state this film induces. Out of respect for the suffering history towards which it gestures, I longed to feel, and to be moved. Instead, it soothed me into a state of blank passivity. Its desert palette of greys, creams and browns was striking, but panorama after vast panorama studded with tramping figures reminded me of glossy photos from the National Geographic, an outfit whose name appears in the list of producers. By the time the few surviving escapees slog over the crest of a mountain into the large, detailed tableau of an Indian tea plantation, I was beginning to ask myself how much the damn thing must have cost.

The credits rolled and I spotted the name of Anne Applebaum as historical consultant. I walked straight out of the cinema and bought a copy of her famous work Gulag: a History (2003). Within two pages, sharp facts were pouring into my head, and my hair was standing on end. At home I took down Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973) and quaked again under the flail of his savage irony. The fact is that these mighty and dreadful matters make the resources of mainstream American cinema look very small indeed.

*

Smallness is a virtue in a piece of work like Leon Ford’s Australian feature Griff the Invisible. Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is a pathologically introverted young clerk who is oppressed all day by the office bully, but transforms himself each night into a bulging-muscled superhero and races along Sydney’s murky alleys, saving women and stylishly beating baddies to a pulp. While pursuing his obsession with becoming invisible, he meets his brother’s batty new girlfriend, Melody (Maeve Dermody). She is convinced that if she can train her molecules to line up exactly with those of a wall, she’ll be able to melt through it unobstructed.

Can love between these eccentrics make fantasy bow to – or mesh with – what’s real? Leon Ford doesn’t apply reason to this question but embeds his two fey creatures in a milieu of straight realism, thus setting off ripples of strange comic energy. When Griff’s protective brother, Tim (Patrick Brammall), announces that he’s had enough and is “going back to Adelaide”, I burst out laughing without knowing why. Griff’s kindly boss, Gary (David Webb), mimicking an American accent made me want to howl. The bully (Toby Schmitz) hands in such a hilarious performance of narcissistic preening that I forgot to wonder why he seems to be wearing a ridiculous wig. And isn’t that a wig on Kwanten, too?

For all its magical overturning of physics, this is really a quiet study of loneliness. Its screenplay is laconic, its handling of tone original and its actors startlingly good. Dermody as Melody barely raises her voice above a murmur, but freshness and joy shine in her face. How did Kwanten bounce from the raunchy carnage of True Blood to this? As Griff, he hardly dares to kiss with that puffy, squashed little mouth he’s got, but when he smiles, the sun comes out. I expected to forget the whole exasperating, endearing thing by the next morning, but I’m surprised to find that its nutty tenderness is haunting me weeks later, disarming me, and even improving my temper.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

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