The Way Back
Film review by: Witney Seibold
As at atmospheric exercise, Peter Weir‘s “The Way Back” is first rate. The film’s protagonists spend the bulk of the film walking through harrowing vistas of breathtaking awe. In the snowy mountains of Siberia, we feel the cold. The wind howls through our hair. The darkness is oppressive. In the chilly wilderness up northern China, we can feel the mud beneath our feet. In the deserts Mongolia, we can feel our lips starting to chap. The subtle noises of nature, constantly singing a quiet chorus to our smallness.”The Way Back” can compete with a Terrence Malick film in terms of natural beauty, epic scope, and scenic contemplation.
As an actual story,”The Way Back” is, sadly, frustratingly bland. It follows a group of escaped prisoners who, to flee the guards who are (presumably) in pursuit, and to evade the inevitable communists who live in the area, must march on foot, mind you 4000 into India where they are certain to be safe. While this sounds like a story rife with survivalist trappings (Do the resort to cannibalism? Do they give up? What is their relationship with the pretty blonde teenage girl who has joined their party? When are they inevitably going to start arguing over who drank the last of the water?), the film plays out more like a travelogue, lacking drama, tension, or even incident. I appreciate the Quaint Epic that Weir is capable of making (he made the wonderful “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” but “The Way Back” is so quaint as to be twee. Which is not a quality you want in your 133-minute film about harrowing survival and starvation.
Jim Sturgess plays the lead character, Janusz, a Polish officer who was handed over to the police by his coerced wife. Sturgess is a fine actor, I suppose, but he strikes me more a s a prettyboy in rough clothing. He is the one who inevitably plans his escape from the Siberian gulag where he is being held, and he is the one who makes the decisions for the group, but he lacks the authority and maturity to make his character seem convincing. Ed Harris plays the grizzled American, who only goes by the pseudonym Mr. Smith, and who grunts and barks at his comrades. Colin Farrell plays a tattooed Russian gangster who stabs a man for his sweater, but manages not to kill anyone once he escapes. There are other plays in the band as well, but they barely register. The teenage girl is played by Saoirse Ronan. While they are all based on real people, none of the characters seem to rise above the simple place of caricature.
Oh, and about that reality. Evidently, “The Way Back” was based on the real-life biography of a real-life Polish prisoner who actually made this walk. When this film was released, however, it came to light that the story was disproven, and the tale in question actually belonged to someone else; the real author had been released from the gulag, and did not escape. The character played by Colin Farrell was actually a fiction as well, which is a pity, as he was the most entertaining character in the film. The credit on “The Way Back” states only that it is based on the novel by Slavomir Rawicz).
The film ends on a rushed coda, equating the film’s struggle to the ubiquity of communism, and its persistent presence in Eastern Europe. This is a red herring. The film has little to say about The Cold War, communism, or anything else for that matter. This is especially disappointing coming from Weir, who has made such wonderful films in the past.
The film does not drag, and, like I said, I cannot stress enough how gorgeous it is. I was surprised at how gripping it was despite its lack of incident. But, since you know how it will end, and you recognize the characters from endless past movies, and Weir does nothing to make them stand out, you will not find yourself moved in any way.