Peter Weir's The Way Back showcases the director's gripping storytelling.
The Way Back delivers a visually ravishing spectacle
The Way Back
Director: Peter Weir;
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong
The veteran Australian director Peter Weir adds another classy credit to his distinguished body of work with this ripping yarn about an audacious wartime jailbreak in the former Soviet Union. The young British actor Jim Sturgess leads an international ensemble cast as Janusz, an innocent Polish émigré wrongly denounced as a spy during Stalin's reign of terror in 1941.
Sent to a murderously harsh gulag prison camp in the frozen depths of Siberia, Janusz soon hatches a daring escape plan. Risking death from exposure, wild animals and bounty-hunting locals, he flees into the snowy wilderness with a small band of followers including a vicious street thug (Farrell) and an enigmatic American engineer (Harris). Carrying a single knife and barely any food, this ragtag gang's only hope of survival is to trudge thousands of kilometres south towards Mongolia, Tibet and India. And so their epic journey begins.
The Way Back is loosely based on The Long Walk, a best-selling but controversial 1955 memoir by the Polish war veteran Slawomir Rawicz, which was largely debunked following the author's death in 2004. A fellow Polish survivor of the Soviet prison camps, Witold Glinski, later claimed that Rawicz had based the story on his own dramatic escape, but this account too has been challenged. Given such unreliable narrators, Weir has conceded that his film is "essentially" fiction. Even so, the basic historical context is undeniably true, while the uplifting message of human hope and resilience still strikes a universal chord in the 21st century.
Co-produced by Imagenation, the film production arm of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, which also owns The National, The Way Back is an unapologetically traditional adventure told in broad brushstrokes on a grand canvas. It contains no post-modern narrative gimmicks, no obvious digital effects, no showboating superstars or self-referential irony. In terms of lineage, Weir's most direct cinematic influences appear to be David Lean's historical epics, notably The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. This is old-school storytelling, which can be both strength and weakness.
Of course, any film about a gruelling journey across a vast wasteland inevitably risks becoming an endurance test itself, and Weir does not entirely resolve this problem. The relentlessly linear narrative is episodic and repetitive, marked only by subtle shifts in the background tableaux. Biting cold and hunger dominate the first hour, punishing heat and thirst the second.
Indeed, so concerned are the protagonists with basic survival that we learn almost nothing of their back stories, their emotions, their inner lives. This less-is-more approach may be a deliberate strategy by the filmmakers to focus viewers on an immediate life-or-death drama, but it also forces a capable cast to work with some decidedly sketchy characterisations. Farrell's snarling cut-throat villain and Ronan's saintly young drifter are notable victims here. Only elder statesman Harris manages to transcend thinly written dialogue, his craggy and haunted face conveying world-weary anguish with minimal outward effort.
In its favour, The Way Back delivers plenty of dramatic tension and stunning scenery, with Bulgaria standing in for snowy Siberia and Morocco's sandy interior for the sun-bleached immensity of the Gobi desert. Often reducing his characters to remote dots on a vast landscape, Weir switches from Lean mode to the solemn nature-worship of Terrence Malick. It makes perfect sense to see a co-production credit here for America's National Geographic Society, whose iconic magazine and nature documentaries share a similar painterly eye for majestic wilderness vistas.
With previous films including Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show, Peter Weir has hardly put a foot wrong during his 40-year career. The Way Back maintains his high standards and commendable commitment to old-fashioned storytelling.