Award-winning Australian filmmaker – and multiple Oscar nominee – Peter Weir should need no introduction, but he’s made a good go of avoiding the limelight, despite an impressive career. His prolific run of thrillers and dramas in the 1980s and 1990s gave the world the likes of Witness, Green Card and Dead Poet’s Society, but he’s become quite selective in the last 17 years, only releasing two films between the 1993 Jeff Bridges vehicle, Fearless, and his latest film, The Way Back.
Those two flicks, by the way, were The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a pair that displayed the man’s diverse talents, and his wide appeal, not to mention his knack of drawing superb performances out of his leading men. As a follow-up, The Way Back has a lot to prove, and despite ticking many stylistic boxes – being a period-set exploration of the human condition on an epic scale – it isn’t quite the masterpiece you’d hope for from a seasoned cinematic veteran.
The film initially develops from a familiar World War 2 setting, with Polish citizen Janusz (Jim Sturgess) being sent to a Siberian gulag after his wife is tortured into naming him a dissident. There, he wanders through archetypal prison drama scenes, hinting at the uneasy relationship between various factions – political prisoners, gangsters and foreigners – and establishing a number of characters that will make up our tidy ensemble for the ensuing 133 minutes.
We know who these characters are, because the roles are filled by the likes of Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, who are giving their all in the hope for awards glory. Their tactics differ. Harris broods with stripped-down intensity as the withdrawn, paranoid American Mr Smith, while Farrell aims for the back row with his obscenely over the top take on the tattooed bruiser Volka, wrapping his snarl around Russian-accented vowels and juggling a crude blade like a circus performer.
This being The Way Back, it’s only a matter of time before our heroes scarper into the endless white, in search of freedom. That moment hits a little earlier than expected, following a very concise summation of all the things better expressed in One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, such as toe-numbing cold, back-breaking labour and soul-crushing futility. The crash-bang-whallop of their escape is only the beginning, though, as where does one go to out-run the Soviets and their allies? Well, India is the safest bet. How far away is that, then? Probably best not to ask…
If the Lord of The Rings trilogy is three films of people walking, The Way Back is its super-serious stylistic twin. It is effectively 4000 miles of plodding drama, as the characters progress from snowy tundra to frosty forests, to breathless swamp, to vast, silky desert, finally ending up at the Himalayas two hours later. Along the way, they brave the elements, slowly starve, learn a little about each other and themselves, and in the process catch a glimpse at some profound truth about humanity.
Those aspects are somewhere in the film, anyway. They’re probably buried underneath the admittedly breathtaking cinematography, which never gives up a chance to present us with a sumptuous wide shot of the overwhelming power of nature itself. It would be no surprise that this was partly inspired by the film’s co-production origins, with National Geographic stumping up some of the budget. They should be happy, because the natural world has rarely looked as stunning (or terrifying) as it does here, and they now have plenty of stock footage for future docudramas.
In comparison, the characters are on treadmills, being dragged through the landscape from setpiece to setpiece by a series of chatty chamber-piece scenes and slick montage sequences (of walking, mostly). Between this, the often atrocious accents, and the actors’ slow withering towards gaunt, blistered emaciation, there’s little room for them to fill out the roles. Likewise, character development itself is shoe-horned into the plot, with little reveals and resolutions coming very easily, heralded by either a sermon or a death. The hazards lie elsewhere, as an prison guard character so openly explains in an early scene: ‘nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy’.
Such a confusion of scope and themes undoes The Way Back’s bid for emotional resonance, or even fundamentally satisfying storytelling. It is only in the film’s final scenes that the implied destination of the title becomes a problem, resulting in an awkward bid for a wider, historical conclusion, that nods towards Poland’s own struggle to remove itself from behind the Iron Curtain, swapping out the characters in favour of Cold War-spanning, archive news footage-cribbing montage. It seems a little jarring, but only seeks to highlight that, all along, the crux of the film lay in the journey.
Although, at 4000 miles covered, The Way Back is a good sight longer than a Wainwright walk, and it’s certainly more exhausting.
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