The Way Back is filmmaking at its most basic. A lack of any real antagonist or narrator and the minimalistic use of score give this remarkable journey by a band of escapees during the Soviet regime in the ’40s an odd POV style that sometimes feels lost without a compass. With Peter Weir at the helm guiding Colin Ferrell, Saoirse Ronan, Jim Sturgess, and Ed Harris, you expect a powerful synergy to occur. While the core components are there, the inevitable question of the veracity of the escape is still in doubt and hinders the film from overcoming the clichéd miracles that occur during their perilous 4,000-mile trek to freedom. Despite this, the linear narrative that plays out has enough humor and heart to stagger through the awe-inspiring scenery, resulting in a tepid yet entertaining film about the drive for survival. Hit the jump to escape into my full review.
Set in the 1940s, Janusz (Sturgess) is imprisoned in a Soviet gulag camp in Siberia after his tortured wife signs a confession that he is a spy against the Communist Party. While at the camp, Janusz meets Khabarov (Mark Strong) who claims to know a way out. After gathering supplies, Janusz and six others — Mr. Smith (Harris), Valka (Ferrell), Zoran (Dragos Bucur), Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), and Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky) — seize the moment in a blinding snowstorm and escape. As they head south for Mongolia in the hope of freedom, they meet Irena (Ronan) and reluctantly allow her to join them. In order to survive, they have to band together and urge each other to push on despite the lives lost along the way.
Peter Weir and Keith R. Clarke wrote the script loosely based on The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Polish author Sławomir Rawicz. For me, this was the most daunting pitfall that the film tumbles down. The reality of the book by Rawicz is under dispute from a number of sources, and whether it is a true story of someone’s journey is up in the air. If true, there is an astonishing tale that The Way Back follows along in a linear path. However, the increasing frequency of the miraculous necessities that appears becomes tiresome across the 133-minute run time.
The editing of The Way Back is another mystery. Despite the two-plus hours the film lasts, key scenes feel casually glossed over—there is a sense that a lot of the movie is still on the editing room floor. For instance, when the prisoners escape, the actual act is never shown, and instead we catch up with the group already on the run. Additionally, there are other moments when the storyline jumps ahead with sudden abruptness that comes off as disjointed. Time warps are a necessity to push the narrative forward, yet the film still feels overlong. While the trite miracles and odd editing attempt to bog the film down, the cinematography and acting keep it afloat.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd uses muted earth tones and natural lighting in The Way Back with outstanding results. There is a moment in a mine where a brown haze floats about, giving the scene an odd, dreamlike quality. In addition, the scenery, ranging from blizzards in Siberia, barren deserts, and mountain landscapes filmed in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India give the film an epic scale. Yet, the varied locations aren’t just for ogling. The seasonal shifts help give a sense of time to the arduous escape while also providing the hurdles they must overcome. Meanwhile, the makeup on the actors in the desert scenes is heartbreakingly detailed and you have to wonder how much of a toll the elements took on them in real life.
That willingness to endure those conditions is one sign that actors gravitate towards Weir’s films; the cast also speaks to that fact. With familiar faces like Ferrell, Sturgess, Harris, Strong, and Ronan, you would expect them to chew up scenes and leave little room for anyone else. Miraculously, Weir got them to reign in their showmanship and instead embody the characters, who, in the film, are working as a team. While Janusz leads the group, everyone has their time and it all feels like a collaborative effort to serve the narrative instead of having heroic, individual moments. Because of this, The Way Back has a realistic feel not often captured on film.
The fight for survival and the search for what will help us endure hardships are at the heart of The Way Back. The story is not just about the miles they crossed, but also the epiphanies and realizations of what is propelling them forward. While Janusz is fighting to get back to his wife from the outset, others discover their truth along the way. As a result, the film is successful as a brief meditation on what would drive someone to endure these hardships. Indeed, there is an undeniable charm and intelligence at work under the surface of The Way Back, but it is buried in clichés that hamper the power of the narrative from truly sinking in.