The term ‘gulag’ doesn’t bear quite as much horror as ‘concentration camp’, but that’s what they were: Soviet prisons for the socially distasteful, carved into icy Siberia. It’s in one of these hellish places that we find the protagonists of Peter Weir’s The Way Back – a flawed, but intriguing travelogue of men on the run from the communist machine.
The Way Back depicts an epic journey across seemingly impassible terrain, achieved only through immense force of will and impeccably inspiring leadership.
To get to that point, however, our heroes first need to escape the camp. We’ve all seen POW movies, so it’ll be no surprise to hear that emerging wilfully from Siberia is something few men ever accomplished. From the second wide-eyed Janusz (Jim Sturgess) enters the camp, every conversation is about escape. In one of many questionable accents, Mark Strong puts an arm around our mushy hero and whispers legends of gaps in the barbed wire.
The first 30 minutes are all about this mooted jailbreak, with a stoic Ed Harris and friends jumping on board – including Colin Farrell in full Russian nutcase mode. Soon enough, the film descends into a montage of breakout preparations.
Cut to scenes of flustered guards and dirty men running through the woods. What happened to the escape we’d heard so much about? It’s not clear whether Peter Weir ever intended to show it, but to miss out a moment billed as nigh on impossible is a cop out. The film is littered with these jarring moments of sloppy editing and poor storytelling. As great as much of the character interplay is, The Way Back suffers from an odd desire to skip over moments of excitement.
The idea is to keep the focus purely on the people involved. Like a real-world Lord Of The Rings, most of the The Way Back is spent trudging from one place to the next. On the surface, that might seem ponderous, but its purpose is to place narrative emphasis on the characters.
In these moments the film is at its best. Relative newcomer Sturgess does a good job making his bright-eyed hero feel rounded, although he owes a debt to the strong supporting cast. Ed Harris, in particular, is excellent. Mr. Smith – an ageing, reticent American – isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone, but you can see exactly why he’s called upon so often to mine that particular archetype.
It’s a tattered drum to keep banging, but it’s a shame that the Hollywood money machine doesn’t have enough confidence to finance a film without mainstream Anglo-American actors in the lead roles. You have to dig down to the second layer of the supporting players in The Way Back before you find anyone from continental Europe. Not that Gustaf Skarsgård, Alexandru Potocean, or Dragos Bucur are second string in terms of ability. Bucur, in particular, carves out an endearing niche as an upbeat Pole.
It’s also in this second group that we find Saoirse Ronan (Irena), the ever-impressive Irish teenager. Now starring in Hanna, her impact on The Way Back is very much echoed in her influence on the film’s characters. As the only feminine voice, she prevents what could have become drudgery from sinking into uneasy melancholy.
The escapees, in particular Mr. Smith, come to see her as a daughter. Mechanically, Irena’s role is to unlock the emotional barriers of each character, like an emotional sink birthed by their hardship. It comes across as a little contrived, but brings some much-needed warmth at just the right time.
The Way Back is a lengthy picture, but is just about worth it. I hate to think how long it would have been had the editing not been so brutal in patches. It was this quandary that likely spurred what were ultimately damaging cuts. Weir elected to go all-in on character progression, but the result leaves obvious moments of tension unresolved before we get on to building the next one. The film is worth seeing for its inhabitants and the breathtaking landscapes they traverse, but it won’t be one that stays long in the memory.
The only additional content on disc is a collection of cast and crew interviews. Unlike the vast majority of similar offerings, most of what the actors have to say about The Way Back is pretty interesting. It feels like everyone had a genuine interest in the film and the faux-hardship that the central cast underwent drew them together as a unit. These are worth watching, although it’s a shame there’s nothing else to while away the hours with.
The Way Back is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.