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The Films Of Peter Weir: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
January 20, 2011 8:29 AM
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Lord knows, we Playlisters love a cinematic polymath: a director whose interests seem unconstrained by the strictures of any one particular genre and who instead leaps nimbly, if not always successfully, from sci-fi to epic to thriller to comedy -- think Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom or Ang Lee. Peter Weir is almost one of these -- his feature film resume boasts everything from mystery to horror to romcom to historical epic, but he falls just short of true all-rounder status because a glimpse at his back catalogue really suggests that while he has dallied with various genres, he’s more comfortable staying within shouting distance of 'human drama.' In fact, you get the impression that Weir only crosses genres because he is following his particular thematic preoccupations (fish-out-of-water scenarios, man vs. nature struggles, etc.) where they lead, rather than because of some kind of intellectual compulsion to kick against his limitations through experimentation.

The word, ‘almost’ can crop up a lot when talking about Weir -- he is almost A-list, he has made several almost-classics, and he can almost always be relied upon to spin a good yarn, if nothing else. But there is a feeling that he falls just short of making the greatness on display in his best work -- the lovely and strange “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the still-fascinating “Witness,” the underseen “Fearless” -- his default setting, and on occasion he becomes slightly anonymous behind the camera, allowing story or spectacle to power along seemingly under their own steam. It’s probably to his credit that he does not seek to put some sort of obvious authorial stamp on everything he does. He is maybe the least show-offy director around, but we know he can do solid, well-observed, convincing and emotive with his eyes closed; however to his best work he brings a unique quality of cerebral, outsidery oddness that we want to see more of.

The Way Back," which opens tomorrow in limited release, is not his best work. Our reviewer was much more positive about it, (read the review here) but this writer was underwhelmed by the episodic nature of the narrative, thought Jim Sturgess an uninspiring lead and found, bizarrely for a film with such epic, continent-spanning scope, it felt small and even stagey at times. So with that said, and the difference of opinion within the Playlist ranks duly noted, let’s take a look at Weir’s feature films and trace how he has, over the years, cemented his reputation as almost one of the best directors out there. - JK

“Witness" (1985)
Culture clash romantic thriller “Witness” may be gorgeously shot (thanks to Weir and DoP John Seale of “The English Patient”), but what’s most remarkable isn’t the rolling landscape of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Instead it’s the performance Harrison Ford gives, which netted him his only Oscar nomination to date. Before “Witness,” audiences primarily knew him for his blaster-shooting and whip- and wise-cracking skills in action franchises. He does get to shoot a handgun or two (thanks to his role as a cop who falls for the mother of his young Amish witness), but he’s most believable in the film’s quieter moments. Set to Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” our favorite scene features Ford’s cop dancing in a barn with Amish widow Kelly McGillis, and he plays it low-key, displaying both his character’s eagerness and his reluctance to charm. Ford has worked with the best directors in the business, but no other filmmaker got a performance out of him that feels as authentic as his work with Weir. [A]

“Fearless” (1993)
A man walks away from a devastating plane crash unscathed and consequently develops a godlike belief that he can’t be killed: the logline is high-concept, but this is about as far from a brainless popcorn movie as it’s possible for a mainstream film to get. Instead we get a smart, absorbing and heartfelt meditation on the nature of redemption and salvation (both in the non-religious sense) and an incredibly human, and humanist drama to boot. The cast (Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Benicio Del Toro, Tom Hulce) are uniformly excellent, but it was the usually grating Rosie Perez who got the lion’s share of the notice, winning several critics awards and a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, for her turn as a fellow survivor who loses her baby in the crash: yet another example of Weir pulling a great performance from an unexpected quarter. The film could’ve easily veered off into melodramatic histrionics in a less intelligent director’s hands, but Weir’s restraint grounds the proceedings to give us a rare bird indeed: an absorbing drama, structured like a thriller with an eerie sense of foreboding throughout, that is not afraid to tackle some profoundly philosophical issues with grace and wisdom. It’s the kind of film that usually falls apart in its last third, lapsing into cliché or contrivance as the story struggles to answer all the questions asked in the opening acts, but here the ending is perfectly calibrated and delivers a deeply satisfying conclusion to an unusual and ambitious story. Masterful. [A]

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975)
While there’s no concrete evidence that Sofia Coppola’s career was influenced -- at least in a sideways direction -- by Weir’s moody, creepy drama about a group of schoolgirls, and their sometimes intimidating teachers, who mysteriously vanish after being drawn towards a peculiar rock formation in early 1900s Australia, the beautiful sunstroked photography of innocent yet enigmatic pubescent girls and the ethereal dreamlike sheen that permeates the picture surely must have made some kind of lasting impression. In fact it wasn't until Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides," or maybe, to a lesser extent, fellow antipodean Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures" that we saw again such a heady brew of adolescent female sexuality and friendship, blended with the uncanny. The connection probably ends there, though, because Weir’s picture doesn’t center on female teenage alienation and instead ventures off into territories and finds tenors that Coppola has yet to explore -- most notably a disquieting and eerie sense of unease and impending doom that makes you shiver just to think about. No, ‘Hanging Rock’ is not a horror film in the traditional sense or even a psychological horror, but the ghostly soundtrack (some music by Zamfir), unresolved ending and ambiguous aura make for a truly disturbing picture that may induce the subtler kind of nightmare. Helen Morse, Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray star and the spectral mystery is an enigmatic headscratcher that will stick in your mind like gum to your shoe and will haunt you long after it's over. [A]

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  • Jessica Kiang | January 21, 2011 7:59 AMReply

    Make one that says Peter Weir Almost Badass, and I'll take two.

  • Taylor | January 21, 2011 7:54 AMReply

    Read this if you're a Weir fan:

  • rodie | January 21, 2011 7:50 AMReply

    I have a t-shirt I made that says Peter Weir Badass.

  • Kotomi | January 21, 2011 4:08 AMReply

    I think The Playlist is one of most important and unique blogs on the Net.So I just wish The Playlist recognized Jim Sturgess works.

    Btw,Rex Reed says of Sturgess like this in his TWB rave review.

    "[i]Leading an exemplary cast is the versatile British [actor Jim Sturgess, who was so memorable in the violent Irish saga Fifty Dead Men Walking.[/b]

    And this comment is from rave review.

    [i]Weir’s also done a commendable job casting the film. The ensemble is led by Jim Sturgess. Those of you that only know him as a heartthrob from films like ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and 21 will be blown away by his performance here, which is a star-making turn if I’ve ever seen one. Condemned by a phony confession tortured out of his wife by Soviet agents, his Polish Political prisoner makes for a compassionate and intriguing hero. Off of this film, I feel confident in predicting imminent stardom for Sturgess. [/i]

    Unfortunately his indie films "Fifty Dead Men Walking" and "Heartless"(UK's cult director,Philip Ridley's new film) were little seen,but people who saw both films acclaimed him.Please see these films someday.

    Sorry for the long post and for my English.

  • Christopher Bell | January 21, 2011 4:06 AMReply

    Okay, so, where did anyone see the line "Peter Weir is almost a great director" in this piece? Honestly and seriously, I must have missed it.

  • Jacko | January 21, 2011 3:27 AMReply

    Weir is 'almost' a great director!? Who writes this (and other such) stuff for Playlist? 19-year olds who were weaned on Michael Bay? Ridiculous. Besides, Master and Commander is one of the best films of the last decade. B, my ass. Very few have the courage or skill to make films like that anymore. Picnic at Hanging Rock should be an A+ too.

  • rotch | January 21, 2011 2:47 AMReply

    Naming The Playlist in the same line as Aintitcool is as reprehensible as calling Peter Weir an almost great filmmaker.

  • Charles | January 21, 2011 2:15 AMReply

    Wow, Peter Weir is "almost" a great filmmaker?? The Playlist is getting so bad that I'm actually considering going back to Aintitcool for my movie news.

  • cirkusfolk | January 21, 2011 1:07 AMReply

    In reference to "A-list"...I wasn't arguing the definition of the term, but in how you used it. You said he was almost A-list, as though it was a bad thing...something he wasn't able to accomplish. Well, since as you pointed out, A-list doesn't relate to how talented you are as a director, how do you know he even wanted to be a go to director for studios. So he can churn out crap that makes money?
    Secondly, I know the grades for the films ARE your were the grades for the films of Michael Mann and Ridley Scott and Tim Burton (I think you did a retro on him). That's just it...those directors had plenty of C's D's and F's and yet those retros seemed unduely more appreciative. So what if Ridley Scott is more prolific, that's no excuse for making bad films. Therefore, A-lister or not, I don't think Scott is as good of a director as Weir. And yes, Weir is relatively slow to make his films, but so is a guy by the name of Terrence Malick. I can't wait to see his retrospective when Tree of Life comes out.

  • ral | January 21, 2011 12:28 AMReply

    For information on world Libertarians, please see

  • Jessica Kiang | January 20, 2011 11:52 AMReply

    What? Really? Wow.

    OK, Cirkusfolk, let me respond to your points one by one:

    1. Peter Yates - there's no mention of Yates here, it's not a comparison made by anyone in the piece, and I certainly have never fawned over/revered him, when he was alive or now that he has died, because, like you, I'd consider him an average director at best.

    2. Polymath. Yes, we are on record as liking a director who works in different genres, and on first glance Weir might seem to fit that bill. However when you compare him to some of those I've mentioned above, there seem to be more recurrent themes, motivations and tones across his films than those others display. That's all that was really being said there. Sorry if you found it condescending, but there wasn't really a massive value judgement being made, just an observation.

    3. A-List. We don't make the list, Hollywood does, and Weir's not on it. In fairness, very few directors are (A list implies brand-name recognition, and someone who can get a film greenlit just by attaching his name to it, a Chris Nolan, a JJ Abrams, a James Cameron). If you think suggesting Weir is "almost" on this list despite an 8 year hiatus from making features is an insult, well, you're crackers. If anything "almost an A lister" overstates his current clout considerably, but at the height of his career to date I'd maintain it was true. And again, A-list does not imply a value judgement on the quality of his films or his talent, it about how he's viewed by the power brokers, movers, shakers etc.

    4. Grades. Firstly, they're not all A and B grades, as 'Cars' only gets a C+. However these, as opposed to the A-list designation ARE our grades and our opinions. We like Weir. We like a lot of his films a great deal. Not sure what we're arguing about here. I'm sorry that Scott is higher up on the go-to list than Weir is, and Scott has certainly had more clunkers than Weir (he is a bit more prolific), but I don't think you can really hold us responsible for stuff, you know, not being fair in the world.

    5. Intellectual compulsion. Here you have me baffled. Not sure why this is an "insult whichever way you cut it" as it wasn't intended as one: if anything it gives short shrift to idea of a director who does genre hop as an intellectual exercise (like there's a list of genres somewhere he's ticking off) rather than following the stories or characters that inspire him into whatever genre they happen to lead. However if it's the not "kicking against his limitations" thing that has you mad, well, that I stand by. I don't think he's that formally experimental a director, but it's possible we simply don't agree on that. Again, this is not saying he's in any way 'bad' or untalented, and in fact, as stated elsewhere I think one of his strengths is in picking stories that inspire him and not obscuring them with quirks or generic gimmickry.

    6. genre hopper/Danny boyle/speculation. Again, if you feel that someone swapping genres out of intellectual compulsion sounds like an unreservedly brilliant thing and therefore I'm dissing Weir for not doing it, well it isn't and I'm not. Yes, Danny Boyle would certainly fit there, and we'll save the arguments over Soderbergh, Winterbottom and Lee being 'lacklustre' for another day. And yes, we like a genre hopper, and we also like Weir, though not for necessarily the same reasons.

    The intro was not an unqualified rave about everything Weir does, because frankly I consider it much more "respectful" to use your word, to give an honest, if nuanced and complex, opinion on his overall canon, rather than 400 words of a hagiography. To have taken an "everything he does is amazing" route just because we're doing a retrospective of his work would have been to be guilty of the same kind of tokenism and dishonesty you deplore re Yates.

    But of course you are well within your rights to remain appalled at my snobbery and elitism if you so wish.

  • bonzob | January 20, 2011 10:51 AMReply

    This is the first retrospective where I've agreed with pretty much all the grades -- I think Green Card is the only difference, I'd give it a B or B+.

    Huge Peter Weir fan -- wish he was more prolific.

  • cirkusfolk | January 20, 2011 10:02 AMReply

    I've always stood behind this site when cries of snobbery and elitism are thrown at it daily, but the introduction to this retrospective is the first time I've been apalled. Peter Yates dies (an average director if you will), and suddenly he's revered, but since Peter Weir is still alive, you find it ok to write about him in the most condensending manner possible. I mean the first sentence says how you love a "cinematic polymath" and then you go right on to say Weir isn't one...WTF! You think you're paying him respect by saying "almost"? Almost an mean like Ridley Scott or Michael Mann? If I remember correctly their retrospectives were covered with black eye movies that garnered C's and below, while Weir's resume, according to your grades, are all A's and B's. So if that's what makes someone an A-lister, I'm glad he's not.

    I'm sorry but the sentence: "you get the impression that Weir only crosses genres because he is following his particular thematic preoccupations (fish-out-of-water scenarios, man vs. nature struggles, etc.) where they lead, rather than because of some kind of intellectual compulsion to kick against his limitations through experimentation" is an insult anyway you cut it. You state you appreciate a genre-hopper ( I would have used Danny Boyle as an example instead of the lackluster names you cited), and then go on to speculate what you believe the only reason Weir could have to "almost" cross genres, adding that it can't be because he's intellectually compelled to challege himself. Whatever.

  • The Playlist | January 20, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    I've been a Peter Weir fan for a long time. Esp in the time when you're a kid and you don't even realize it's the same director making all these films you like. I STILL have my "Green Card" action figures.

  • Deborah Bosket | January 20, 2011 9:37 AMReply

    I agree with Chris about Andie MacDowell. Meh. Also, her apartment in that movie was amazing.

  • Christopher Bell | January 20, 2011 9:32 AMReply

    I still think "Green Card" is one of the better, more fun romantic comedies. Sure is cute! But yeah, I'd fancy someone else as the female lead instead of when-will-she-age Andie McDowell.

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