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Survivalist: Stugess in The Way Back.

Brutal Beauty

By Ann Morrow

The Way Back

Directed by Peter Weir

Lined up outside a Siberian labor camp on a winter’s day, several prisoners drop to the ground as though they’ve been silently shot. But it isn’t the guards that murder them: It’s the subarctic cold. As a camp commander warns the newest prisoners, if they try to escape, nature will kill them. In The Way Back, Peter Weir’s first movie since Master and Commander seven years ago, nature is as brutal and unpredictable as the Stalinist regime that sent innocent men to the gulag for the flimsiest of reasons. The year is 1940, and the story has been adapted from a memoir by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish cavalry officer captured by the Red Army. As the opening titles disclose, against a sweeping vista of craggy, snow-covered mountains, some of the men will escape and walk 4,000 miles to freedom. Yet it’s not just sheer survival that provides this adventure tale with its almost mystical exhilaration.

Convicted as a Polish spy, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is befriended by a Russian actor (Mark Strong) arrested for playing an aristocrat onstage. The actor warns Janusz about the street criminals who rule the gulag, and convinces him that escape is indeed possible. While they are planning their prison break, Janusz forms a wary acquaintance with a tough American who calls himself Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), while bonding with the other political prisoners, including a Latvian priest. After being reassigned to the death sentence of working in the mines, Smith takes over the escape plan. But in one of the plot’s astutely psychological twists, it isn’t the actor who makes the escape with them; it’s Valka (Colin Farrell), the most dangerous of the criminals. Valka has a knife, and fortitude, and during a blinding snowstorm, seven men walk out into the frozen tundra, outmaneuvering the guards and packs of St. Bernards. Those that survive the cold are soon faced with their next obstacle: starvation.

This survivalist epic is less about the triumph of the human spirit as it the small miracles that allow the men to survive. Forgoing the usual interpersonal conflicts, the story reveals how the men gradually adjust to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Valka, particularly, is a fast learner, exchanging intimidation tactics for a friendly rapport with the group’s best providers (though Farrell’s star power and showy performance almost undoes the character’s realism). The film’s real drama comes from their interactions with their environment, from the tundra to a scorching desert to the Himalayas (ravishingly photographed by Weir’s fellow Aussie, Russell Boyd). Sometimes the personal side is too subdued, as when the priest rescues Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a starving refugee. Irena clings to Smith, but the idea that a teenage girl would be completely safe from predation is a bit of a stretch, even as Smith develops a fatherly (and beautifully acted) solicitude for her. And sometimes the scenery is too beautiful to convey its crushing power, even though the transcendent soundtrack successfully conveys that there are other forces at work than the power of nature.

However, the spare, sensitive dialogue is the perfect foil for exposing the horrors of Communism on the lives of ordinary people, and it’s this horror, even more than 4,000 miles of extreme deprivation, that is triumphantly overcome.

 

The Good Fight

Made in Dagenham

Directed by Nigel Cole

Borrowing its essential flavor from movies like Saving Grace and Calendar Girls, Made in Dagenham is a sweet concoction with just a bit of bite at its forefront, a recipe not altogether surprising considering all the above mentioned films were directed by Nigel Cole. This time, however, instead of proper ladies growing weed or stripping for the camera, the focus is on the real-life 1968 labor strike by a group of female Ford auto workers in Dagenham, England. The ladies demand equal pay, noting at first that their work custom sewing seat upholstery is highly skilled, then arguing for the basic fundamentals of equality.

When it becomes clear that the ladies’ lead union representative, the beloved Connie (Geraldine James), is too averse to confrontation, shop steward Albert (an impish Bob Hoskins) recruits Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), who, despite her initial nervousness, rises to the task of taking on the old guys’ club. The scene in which Rita and Connie, instructed by a union higher-up to sit quietly while he and the Ford suits talk over the issues, sets the movie’s brisk, comic tone nicely; Rita finds she cannot sit by silently, then proceeds to let rip a thrilling opening salvo into men’s collective defense. As Albert explains later, Rita has bigger balls than the three men put together; it’s true.

Cole captures the essence of a postwar England alive with change and yet struggling to regain its footing, socially, culturally, and, of course, economically. When the women’s strike begins to pinch the wallets of their menfolk, there is tension and marital discord, although William Ivory’s script largely glosses over what it means when suddenly Mom’s out protesting and Dad’s on the dole. That said, there is a beautifully tense bedtime scene in which Rita, flush from the growing popularity of her pursuit, tries to ferret out of her husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) the reason for his sarcasm. Also on pitch are Miranda Richardson’s delicious scenes, as her labor secretary Barbara Castle mows down her sexist minions and reaches, over whiskey, an understanding with the striking workers.

Much of the movie is formulaic, to the point that you know way too far ahead of time what’s going to happen to whom, and how. Despite that, Dagenham is pleasant and rousing. At movie’s end I couldn’t’ help but make mental note of the bittersweet nature of its uplifting ending, as so many major industries have left places like Dagenham (and Schenectady), and in their wake is a gaping hole that used to be productivity and progress. The rights that Rita and her allies fought for are sound, but under threat of being lost anew as we fumble our way through a worldwide economic freefall. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Made in Dagenham, despite its relative thinness, is such a treat.

—Laura Leon

 

Scammers: (l-r) Spacey and Pepper in Casino Jack.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Kevin Spacey

Casino Jack

Directed by George Hickenlooper

The late George Hickenlooper’s dramatization of the fall of “superlobbyist” Jack Abramoff gets off on the wrong foot—and stays there. It’s not so much bad as it is thoroughly irritating. How else can you describe a movie that leaves you wishing that Jon Lovitz had gotten more screen time?

From the very first scene, this political comedy—I think that’s what they were going for, anyway—is mishandled. The movie kicks off with an indulgent bit of scene chewing from Spacey that signals the movie’s essential confusion: Are we to see Abramoff as a sympathetic, though hubristic, man corrupted by D.C.’s climate of ethical laxity, or as a straight-up psychotic? It doesn’t seem that the filmmakers answered the question for themselves.

Abramoff’s sleazy dealings, while not exactly excused, are implicitly mitigated in the movie by scenes showing him as a fond husband and father feeling the financial pressures of an upscale lifestyle; there are also explicit and repeated messages that “everyone is doing it,” that D.C. is a fundamentally crooked place. The latter point, that government can be viewed as a domain of scoundrels, hypocrites and lunatics could be made, in fact, has been made and has been made hysterically. But Hickenlooper is no Kubrick; Casino Jack is no Dr. Strangelove; and, to belabor the point, Spacey is no Sellers, not by a long shot.

Apparently, the actual Abramoff enjoyed quoting from The Godfather. This provides an excuse to allow Spacey to unleash a handful of middling impersonations—from Pacino, of course, to Ronald Reagan. It is intensely annoying. So much so, that by the time an onscreen character makes the same observation, it’s too late. There’s no laugh in the meta-gag. Spacey plays Abramoff with a kind of a knowing smirk that worked well in, say, The Usual Suspects but is completely out of place here. You can’t play funny funny.

So with the satire dulled, the movie is rendered a kind of Republican bromance-gone-wrong between Abra-moff and his business partner and eventual turncoat, Mike Scanlon (an intensely creepy Barry Pepper). What few laughs there are come via a subplot involving some of Abramoff’s thuggish associates. The late Maury Chaykin is fun as a slovenly mobster, and the aforementioned Lovitz is enjoyable as a nebbishy crook. If only Spacey had taken his cues from the SNL vet. “ACTING!”

—John Rodat


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