Film Review – The Way Back
Peter Weir’s latest film, The Way Back (2010), is an endurance test for both the characters in the film and for the audience watching it, and I mean that as a compliment. Throughout the film’s one hundred and thirty three minute time span, we watch with hope, despair, and curious fascination, as a group of refugees desperately cling to life, taking step by agonizing step toward freedom. Based on a best-selling memoir by Slavomir Rawicz, the story itself has been called into question in regard to its facts. But, honestly, that doesn’t really matter. Regardless of whether or not a film’s source material is credible, what’s important is how well a film is made, and although it is not perfect, this is one well-made movie about the struggle for survival.
It is 1940, and communism is sweeping its way across Eastern Europe and Asia. We open with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a young Russian man, beaten and held prisoner by his communist captors. He is threatened and urged to sign a confession admitting his protest to the regime, but he holds fast and refuses. Unfortunately, poor Janusz is sold out by the very person he trusts the most, his own wife. We skip forward, and we find Janusz held in a gulag in Siberia, along with a host of other protestors, rebels, criminals, and innocents, all mixed together. Among these prisoners is Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian criminal who is quick with both his temper and his knife, and a mysterious American known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), who made his way to Russia to escape the Great Depression and harbors a secret guilt that prevents him from opening up to other people. The gulag is what you would expect a prison camp to be in a film that features prison camps: dark, brooding, and cold. The men are forced to march together and work all day, food is meager, and living conditions are cramped and unsanitary. This beginning portion of the film was the least interesting to me; the part that I was most looking forward to was seeing how they would escape the real prison: the harsh, outdoor wilderness.
In a daring and dangerous escape, Janusz, Valka, Mr. Smith, and four other prisoners make their way out of the gulag under the cover of snow, and when I say, “cover,” I mean it. The blizzard that these men run into is so harsh that they can barely see a foot in front of them, having to use tree bark to protect their faces. Once free from the soldiers and hunting dogs, the men come to the reality of their true test: having to literally walk 4000 miles from Siberia, through Mongolia, over the Himalayas, and finally into northern India, where freedom lies. For the rest of the film, they’ll have to fight snow, the burning hot sun, wolves, poisonous snakes, starvation, and the complete expansiveness of the land, to get to their destination. There is a moment, where the group climbs over a hilltop only to find more desert stretching miles and miles into the horizon, where we can feel the literal hopelessness of their pursuit. However, an opening title card mentions that only a handful of them will make it to the end, which makes it more intriguing to see who holds out, almost like a cinematic version of Survivor.
I think one of the strongest elements of the film can also be seen as one of its hindrances. What Weir successfully does here is put us in the position of the characters. The pacing of the film is very slow and plodding; there are a lot of scenes featuring the men simply walking in very wide-open shots. They walk through snow, through desert, over mountains, through the Great Wall of China—on and on they walk. Now, if you as a viewer do not have the patience to go through this kind of ordeal, then this can be seen as a weak point of the movie. But, for me, I appreciated this aspect. The methodical pace of the film worked; it put me in a mindset somewhat the same as the characters. Whenever they walked over a hilltop or passed a mountain, I was right there with them, hoping to find food, water, or some sign of civilization.
Another strong aspect was the acting. ll around, the actors here did a good job of giving their characters some uniqueness and variety. They’re not simply faces among a group, but individuals helping each other to survive. The leads were particularly memorable; Jim Sturgess gives a good performance as a man taking the leadership role, fighting to return to his loved ones. Ed Harris is always strong, and he gives his character a hard edge that only softens once the group runs into a young girl by the name of Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Irena, like the men, is an escapee in her own right, and through the lovable and human element she provides, the members of the group allow themselves to open up to each other. The main highlight of the film is Colin Farrell. I feel Farrell is a very underrated actor, and his scenes in the film prove that he has tremendous talent. His character is an unpredictable, dangerous wild card, but somehow Farrell adds a bit of humanity in his performance, allowing us to sympathize with him more than we probably should.
The film unfortunately does have some issues. First, it seems to be lacking in certain details, especially in regard to how they kept themselves going. It must take a strong and intelligent mind to use different aspects of nature to an advantage, but we never see how they use their inventiveness for survival. Take, for example, a film like Cast Away (2000), where we see how Tom Hanks’ character used his intelligence to create shelter, storage, and fire. How exactly do the men in this film keep their food from going bad, or how did they make their weapons to hunt food, and how exactly did they hunt their food? I think a few more scenes of this behavior would have worked to the film’s benefit. Another problem I had was the historical aspect of the film. Yes, the movie is based in the early 1940s during the birth of the communist era, but it seemed to glaze over how the world’s issues put them in this position. It was as if the movie started midstream, assuming that we went to history class before coming to the theater. And the biggest problem I had was the certain feeling that it evoked at the end. In a story about struggle and human survival, you would think by the close you would be inspired and uplifted by this story; I, however, wasn’t. Instead, I felt as if I had just run a marathon; yes, I’m glad that I went through the experience, but I’m certainly relieved for it to be over.
Again, if you’re looking for an action packed movie, you won’t find it here. This film, like the very characters in it, takes awhile to get to its destination; it’s certainly a slow-paced burn. But if you’re willing to go through its journey, I think you’ll find it worthwhile. The acting is strong, the cinematography captures beautiful shots of the landscapes, and although the plot is thin, there’s enough to invest you through its duration. Although it may not be entirely true to life, its makers take the film seriously and realistically, and that is all it really needs.
Final Grade: B