The Way Back (2010)
Written by Peter Weir and Keith Clarke
Directed by Peter Weir
Seven years passed from Master and Commander to this, Peter Weir’s final film (for now). One of the most jarring things about the 21st century when looking at Weir’s work is how these two movies do not feel like his. His work through the 1970s to the 1990s always possessed a New Age atmosphere, spiritual but not attached to any particular dogma, humanist and appreciative of the natural world. These things are present in The Way Back but do not result in the same rich work as a film like Witness, Fearless, or The Truman Show does. The Way Back is not a terrible film, but it is definitely not one deserving of a second visit, and it ends with an incredibly clunky third act.
During World War II, Polish army officer Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturges) is sent to a Soviet gulag after his wife gives a statement that he is a spy. Once in Siberia. Janusz forms a close group with a half dozen men, primarily Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and Valka (Colin Ferrell). Despite warnings from the guards, these men plot an escape and find themselves facing the brutal conditions of this desolate landscape. Along the way, they are joined by Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a Polish girl who says Russians murdered her parents and sent her off to work camp. The group makes their way towards the border with Mongolia, dreaming of crossing into Tibet and eventually India. However, each person carries a lot of emotional weight from their past lives and finds it impossible to escape their mixed feelings over their futures.
From a technical point of view, Weir can pull off some gorgeous sweeping shots of these landscapes. We go from the snow-covered evergreens of Siberia to the shores of Lake Baikal to the Gobi Desert and eventually the towering Himalayas. I wouldn’t rank this up there with the greats like Lawrence of Arabia, and I don’t think this film looks as good as Master and Commander. But it’s still terrific and better than any random CG-fest you could pick in multiplexes at the moment. The problems that sideline The Way Back can not be said to be the filmmaking techniques.
The script has very little meat on its bones, so we end up with long, laborious sequences of just watching people traverse these lands. A few times is okay, but by the tenth aerial shot of people scrambling over a hill, it feels like the movie is being extended for no good reason. Where the picture shines is when we get character moments, yet many of these characters end up feeling incredibly disposable. We don’t get enough detail to distinguish these players outside the known named actors. They look so similar with scraggly beards and tired eyes that they all blend together at a certain point. Harris and Farrell stand out because their characters are given very distinctive personalities and looks. While they survive, it diminishes the deaths of other characters who, when they are passing, leave the viewer puzzled as to who exactly is dying.
Billed as a movie about survival, there isn’t much detail given to that survival. There are moments when they stumble across an injured deer or discover natural mosquito repellent, but most of their time in the wilderness are shots of them walking. I think stepping a bit closer and taking a cue from Master and Commander to showcase the day-to-day procedures would have been a better watch. With an over two-hour runtime, there is space to show what happens if some of their meat spoils or how they deal with frostbite. But all these potentially interesting episodes are glossed over for what amounts to a generically sweeping “epic.”
A big part of the opening and closing of the picture is an emphasis on the “evils” of communism, particularly the Soviet regime. The film does make a compelling case as to how this ideology is brutalizing. It was based on actual events from the memoir of Polish writer Slavomir Rawicz. Except that in 2006, the BBC discovered that Rawicz was released by the Soviets in 1942 and didn’t wander across a continent to freedom. So, when the movie starts showing a montage of scenes from the expansion of the Iron Curtain and frames this as a 20th-century tragedy, it rings much less true when the story at its core is an invention, a fiction, a lie. I would think that anyone genuinely concerned about brutal carceral systems might want to look at the Western world. The United States especially has plenty of real stories of people being beaten down by authoritarian rule. Weir disappointed me in this aspect because, at minimum, I expected him to gloss over the socio-political elements as he did in The Year of Living Dangerously. But here, he delivers a bland, uninteresting anticommunist bore. I’m not really sure I’d want Weir to direct any more pictures if this is where he is in the final decades of his career. Instead, I’d rather reflect on the body of work as it stands and not see the high points diluted by more lows like this one.