Starring: Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell

Director: Peter Weir

It is 1941 and Polish political prisoner Janusz leads an escape from one of Josef Stalin’s Russian gulags in Siberia. The eclectic group go on the run and begin an epic 4,000 mile walk to India and freedom, determined to survive both the rough terrain, harsh elements and passage through the vast Communist territories ahead of them.

Director Peter Weir has often shown a fascination with tales of mankind against the elements, be it the Central American jungles of The Mosquito Coast or the unforgiving seas of Master and Commander, and he continues his theme with this, his first film for nearly eight years. The Way Back is based on the book The Long Walk by former Polish prisoner SÅ‚awomir Rawicz, who claimed the events were true, only for those claims to be later refuted, and someone else come forward and declare that the story was his. Whatever the veracity of the source material, The Way Back remains a fascinating tale.

Weir wastes no time in illustrating just why anyone would be driven to attempt such a journey. The gulags of Siberia were terrible places, where ‘enemies of the people’ were placed for the most arbitrary of reasons. Cold, dirty and ruthlessly run by criminal inmates, it is little wonder that Janusz, imprisoned on the basis of a confession from his own wife, decides to make a break for it. Enlisting the aid of several fellow prisoners, including Ed Harris as the American Mr. Smith and Colin Farrell as Russian thief Valka, his small band escape during a blizzard and, with little in the way of provisions, begin to head South on a journey that takes in the snows of Siberia, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas.

It is in capturing both the stunning beauty and cold disregard of these landscapes that Weir, with funding from National Geographic, exhibits his greatest strengths. This is a movie that, while celebrating the exuberance and determination of the human spirit, reminds us that we are very much at the mercy of the world we live in, passers-by in landscapes that can grind us to dust. As the group progress and fight starvation, exposure and exhaustion, it becomes clear that not everyone will make it to the end. But those that don’t are celebrated for dying as free men.

The sudden outbreak of vomiting left Ed glad he hadn't had the fish course

As leader of the group by default, Jim Sturgess’ Janusz is a solid central presence, the will of the group when they falter. Ed Harris brings his usual gravitas and quiet dignity to proceedings and Colin Farrell finds the endearment in his violent, loutish Valka. Saoirse Ronan is perhaps a little underused as another Polish refugee the group pick up along the way, and there is sometimes a general lack of exploration of the characters on the whole. But when you have the land itself as your lead performer, this is understandable. The power of the story doesn’t suffer too much from it.

The Way Back seems like it was rather neglected on its initial cinema release. Hopefully with its DVD release it will pick up more of an audience. It deserves to.

Rating - 4 Stars

Starring: Colin Farrell, Keira Knightly, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis

Director: William Monahan

Freshly released from Pentonville prison and determined not to return to his criminal past, Mitchell finds work as a minder for reclusive movie star Charlotte, with whom he develops a relationship. However, old friends embroil Mitchell in the plans of East End crime boss Gant and Mitchell is forced to confront him.

I have a very low tolerance for British gangster movies. There’s only a handful that have ever really engaged me. The Long Good Friday, Sexy Beast and Get Carter rank among those few. London Boulevard, unfortunately, doesn’t. Which is a shame because, with a cast like this, it should have had something going for it.

Based on the novel by Ken Bruen, London Boulevard is the directorial debut of screenwriter William Monahan, who penned the excellent The Departed for Martin Scorsese. And while I’m very much looking forward to Monahan’s recently announced Becket, it’s not down to any overwhelming promise on display here.

I’ve never been one to condemn a movie simply because it doesn’t have a particularly original storyline. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the most unoriginal movies of the last year. But when you’re churning out yet another criminal-trying-to-go-straight-but-unable-to-escape-his-past tale, you have to bring something extra to the table and this movie just doesn’t do that.

Colin Farrell, who usually brings an abundance of personality to his roles, struggles to imbue Mitch with anything remotely approaching character. But that may be because he’s having so much trouble nailing the London accent. Instead, Mitch is one of those protagonists that leave you rather cold. Noble as his attempts at redemption may be, you never really care if he achieves it or not. He’s just the wrong side of being a dick to really care about.

Knightly seems equally adrift in a role which gives her little to do except look miserable and offer pouty looks to Farrell, who returns the favour by raising his eyebrows a bit. The chemistry between the two is non-existent and the development of their relationship is hurried, clumsy and far too restricted by the need to proceed to the next tough-guy scene.

Enter Ray Winstone as sinister, powerful psychopath Gant. Entertaining as his scenes are, this is the kind of role that Winstone can do in his sleep. And sometimes he looks and sounds like he might be doing just that. Maybe he’s just as bored as we are. In a movie crammed with completely unsympathetic characters, at least Gant is supposed to be.

Colin is less than impressed with Ray's Michael Caine impersonation

The only actor who really engages is David Thewlis as the wasted, acerbic and surprisingly violent actor Jordan. His is a character that truly surprises, the only one in the movie that does, and the film sparkles just a little whenever he is on screen. Sadly, he’s not on screen long enough to rescue London Boulevard from being just another boring British gangster movie filled with another group of boring characters.

Still, it does have a good soundtrack.

Rating - 1 Star

.

.