The Way Back is the latest film from Peter Weir and it explores the desperation of making a 4000 mile journey in harsh conditions, and how it affects a group of people. I have to say I went in without great expectations, following fairly middle of the road reviews and my not being a fan of Master and Commander at the time of its release. I am however a fan of epics, Mark Strong and Ed Harris so I did have hope for it.
The film sets up with some prologue text dedicating it to ‘three people who emerged from the Himalayas.’ just so we already know that not everyone is doing the whole journey. Reading up about the film I found an article about how the story really can’t be verified as true, but there are clues that suggest that someone did it. The film states that it is ‘Inspired by True Events’ so you shouldn’t take this to mean that it actually happened like this. Peter Weir is aware of the findings and decided there were enough pointers to suggest that something like this did happen, so he adapted it from the allegedly auto-biographical book 'The Long Walk' by Slavomir Rawicz but replaced him in the central role.
Set in the early 1940’s it opens with Janusz Wieczak (Jim Sturgess) facing an interrogation from a Russian Officer. He is suspected of being a spy and of not being loyal to the red army. He refuses to sign a confession but the Russians have a plan. They bring in his wife who has confessed to the whole thing and signed her name to it (whether it's true or not, we don't know). This is one of the most impactful scenes of the film, with just the insinuation of what they might have done to her, the turmoil the characters display and what is going to happen to them both.
The scene is moved to Siberia where Janusz is a prisoner in a camp full of similarly imprisoned folk, mixed with genuine criminals. We are introduced to the rest of the cast (bar Saoirse Ronan) and the film shows something of their character too. We meet Mr.Smith (Ed Harris) and American engineer who looks out for number one, Valka, (Colin Farrell) a Russian criminal who doesn’t give a shit, Khabarov (Mark Strong) who brings about the escape plan, Voss, Zoran, Tamasz and Kazik. I'm sorry about the lack of information about these characters but I kind of lost track of who is who there....sorry!
Once the troupe is collected they make a break for it, but Mr.Smith has told us that Khabarov only uses the idea of escape to make his sentence more bearable and he has no plans of escaping. So it turns out that he doesn’t and this is the last we see of him. I found it a bit odd to cast an actor of Mark Strong's standing in such a small role, but maybe he signed up before his hot streak in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass and Robin Hood.
It isn’t too difficult to make it out of the compound with a snow storm removing any sort of visibility and they aren’t chased. This is because there are about a million square miles of Siberia between them and any society that won’t trade them in for the bounty. This is the start of the journey however and what the film is really about.
The journey takes them through five different areas, but the peril builds up well to a peak in the fourth area and as such the fifth area is pretty much summed up in a montage which really was the right decision. They start in the Siberian Mountains which are covered with snow and forest. As they go south the snow melts and it becomes a more green forest which also spends some time travelling by a lake and they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan) around that time. They make it to a plain of red rock which looks a bit like Tatooine and then it finally becomes an out and out desert, complete with dunes. There are also slivers of back story to each of the characters and while this helps build up who they are, it’s not really what the film is about. It’s about their relationship between them and how they overcome adversity.
Throughout the journey they all face moments of desperation, some of which are quite powerful and some of which change the group dynamic and help change the people too. They have to contend with hunger and the need to keep moving. They also are forced to deal with avoiding a Russian town and mosquitoes by a lake. It really gets hard when they reach the desert and have to deal with hunger, thirst, heat, mirages and sandstorms. This is where the film draws its interest from and they are generally well done throughout, but some definitely stick with you more than others. Small touches such as how Janusz uses his walking stick and an acorn to navigate south becomes a morning ritual are important and a scene where they scare wolves away from a deer carcass is particularly powerful.
With the film being the way it is, it forces me to draw comparison to John Hillcoat’s adaption of ‘The Road.’ Both are perilous long journeys which don’t change plot, just the characters dynamic and the characters themselves. I have to say as a fan of The Road, I think that film did it just a bit better. This is probably due to the extremes that you see on Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s body and their desperation. This is again helped by the father-son dynamic and the lack of any possible happy ending. However that’s for another day...
The Way Back is helped greatly by its script and its performances. All of the actors pulled off their accents well and gave strong performances. Saoirse Ronan occasionally lets her accent slip if she speaks too quickly but otherwise she does a fine job. The stand out character to me though was Colin Farrell who plays nearly mad very well. You really get the sense that he could do anything if provoked in the wrong way. Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Dragos Bucur and Gustaf Skarsgard also do really well, but I don’t think anyone in the film has a right to be on any acting award nomination lists unless it’s for the ensemble. Some of the best moments are respites between despair when the group start to come together as a family and share some laughs that feel genuine.
The locations are important to a film like this, and while they are beautiful, there aren’t as many epic location shots you’d expect from a film funded by the National Geographic. Whether it is because these shots rarely showed the cast in them, the quality of the print or the choice of shot, they never really struck me as grand as you might find in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The general visual tone of the film did change as their surroundings changed and this helped with giving the film some progression and interest for the eyes. There is also zero music in the film with exception to the first and last five minutes but when it does finally arrive at the end, it doesn’t make a fuss.
I guess my biggest problem with the film would be the ending. It really feels a bit strange to me but maybe I was on my own on that one. Whilst trying to tread around spoilers of which really there aren't many, we find out why Janusz wanted to escape towards the end of the film, and the ending seems to ruin any sense of urgency (and reason for escaping) he might have had.
I’ve said that these aren’t really reviews, merely thoughts on the film, but I think I’m going to vote 3.5 on this one. Whilst most films are improved simply by being in a cinematic environment, I don’t think that these thoughts should encourage anyone to go out and see it unless you’re already interested. The film will work perfectly fine at home and there really are some great ones in the cinema at the minute!