Movie Review: The Way Back

Released UK - December 26 2010; UK distribution by Newmarket Films
Director Peter Weir; running time 133 minutes; Rated 12A; now available on DVD from amazon.co.uk

Perhaps it's not that surprising that many folk don't bother to go to their local cinemas anymore, as I could not find one anywhere in what's called Lancashire now that was showing The Way Back. So as happens more often than not nowadays, your reviewer had to hop on a train to sunny Manchester to find a cinema that was showing Peter Weir's latest classic.
Now a number of people have challenged the facts behind the novel that inspired Peter Weir's The Way Back - it's the story of a group of men who escaped a Soviet gulag in the 1940s and made their escape to India across more than four thousand miles on foot. The premise reads like the kind of thing many would struggle to believe even with cast-iron proof.
Bearing that in mind, apparently Weir sees his movie as true in as much as it deals with individual events that really happened, more than he sees it as an adaptation of a verifiable first-hand account. The exhaustive research he undertook to back up what did go into the movie and the gritty, lived-in production values certainly give it a stamp of authenticity regardless of whether or not these people actually existed.
The thing is in trying to include so many different stories Weir does considerable damage to the story as a coherent whole. The Way Back is definitely an entertaining piece of work, and one that must have taken considerable effort to put together but it's a scrappy, piecemeal narrative rather than a grand sweep, undercut by choppy, inconsistent editing and pacing that hardly ever gives its characters room to breathe.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess, who also starred in Heartless and Across the Universe) is ostensibly the protagonist. A Polish soldier arrested on a (presumably) trumped-up charge by the Soviet authorities, is shipped off to the frozen wastelands of Northern Siberia for a twenty-year stretch. Determined to escape, happier to die outside the camp than in he falls in with a group of like-minded souls, among them Ed Harris' taciturn American pilot and Colin Farrell's hard-bitten career criminal. Janusz' forestry skills see them through the wilderness, but it's a long way to the shores of Lake Baikal (by which they plan on orienting themselves) and even further still to the Trans-Siberian Railroad then the Mongolian border beyond. Of course, given they've not stepped outside Russia in years, if at all, current events turn out to have overtaken them, and their journey ends up being longer than they could ever have imagined.
Weir wastes very little time getting started, as if he's aware of how much ground he needs to cover and to begin with, at least, it works fantastically. The gulag is an icebound hellhole comprised of savage, merciless routine (very much like Preston Jail I'm told!), the inmates believably intimidating, betting cigarettes and pornographic sketches in card games, knifing each other on a whim (Farrell especially is surprisingly convincing). If not from random violence, they're either dying of malnutrition or playing metaphorical Russian roulette in the mines.
But when Janusz and company make their break for freedom it's over and done with almost before you know it, and this quickly starts to become the pattern, with the story skipping like a stone through scattered vignettes along the way. The arc where the escapees battle to avoid freezing to death in the forest isn't helped by some of the weakest photography in the whole running time, where the trees in the background look more like the boundaries of a studio set from two or three decades ago.
The individual pieces of the story are never less than watchable - the script divides the dialogue up fairly evenly across the cast, including Irena (Saoirse Ronan, who also appeared in Atonement and The Lovely Bones) the young girl who joins them along the route. All the protagonists are stock types to some extent, but no-one lets their role descend entirely into cliché - even Ronan, who's fairly obviously been saddled with adding both the feminine touch and some element of innocence to a gang of grizzled, sweaty men.
But the editing means few of these pieces ever really impact with the dramatic weight they ought to. All too often a back-and-forth carries an obvious message, or a quick Cliff Notes to what a given character's thinking - this is the kind of thing that happens in wartime, this is why I'm so angry, this is why I'm so driven, so on, so forth - and almost every time it comes across as rushed, hurried, as if Weir's desperate not to miss the next beat.
By far the strongest section is the characters' lengthy slog across the Gobi Desert towards the Himalayas, because it's the one point at which Weir and Russell Boyd really open up the movie. The characters get more room to breathe, the landscape becomes much more of a presence (rather than a pretty backdrop) and given extra time to develop, the plot becomes briefly, blessedly ruthlessly unsentimental, with two or three scenes in particular exceptionally harrowing.
Yet after that the ending simply settles back into fast-forward. The final push into the home stretch and India beyond is literally reduced to no more than we're done; oh no we're not; oh yes we are and oh, wait, I guess we're not. It's a damp squib compared to what these people have just dragged themselves through, and despite bringing the audience closure it can't help but feel disappointingly perfunctory, for all the gorgeous scenery.
The Way Back is an achievement, despite all this, and a worthy piece of entertainment, one that will doubtless leave a lot of people very happy. But the main impression it leaves the viewer with is how far Weir seems to have over-stretched himself, almost as if he'd shot a miniseries worth of material then hacked it down to feature length at the last minute. Nonetheless, it definitely warrants recommending, even if you have to wait for it to come out on DVD as no cinemas near by are showing it!

Reviewed by Mark Cotterill, Preston, Lancashire

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This review first appeared in the April-June 2011 issue of Heritage and Destiny (Issue 44). You can buy single back issues of H&D for £4.00, while an annual subscription (four issues) costs just £20.00. Visit the Heritage and Destiny page here for more details and to place an order.