The Way Back is a long journey. It’s fairly inspiring, frequently touching, often reminiscent of David Lean but all too often boring. What could have been a dramatic epic that pulls you into a sweeping adventure, turns into a long, drawn out and somewhat dull movie. In many ways, it reminds me of another film, also by Peter Weir. That film is Master and Commander: Far Side Of the World, a film that was originally supposed to be a trilogy but only ended up as a stand alone film. Why you ask? Well, like The Way Back, it had potential. Big scale, grand scope, strong cast and potential to be an epic adventure. But also like The Way Back, it was slow, tedious and not terribly exciting.
In The Way Back, Weir gives us the supposed true story of a group of prisoners that manage to escape from a Siberian gulag in 1940. That’s not the hard part though. Once they escape, they embark on a 4,500 mile journey that will show them that despite escaping the gulag, they may still have to face their most formidable opponent yet, nature. Our three main characters Janusz (Jim Sturgess), Valka (Colin Farrell) and Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) lead the charge here and along the way they pick up Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Along with a couple minor characters, this is the core group that we follow throughout the film.
Weir sets up the film with a brief segment in the gulag, exposing us to the harsh conditions and preparing us for the inevitable escape. We are introduced to Janusz, Valka and Mr. Smith and after the three become acquainted, talk of escape begins. After said escape takes place, which is actually quite easy, the film really kicks off. And with it also begins the suffering, as our band of brave escapees face the harsh forces of nature. ”Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy,” yells one of the officers in the gulag, and he couldn’t be more right.
Now the premise is intriguing, and the fact that it’s based one true events, supposedly, helps to pull you in. But the movie fails to connect with audiences on an emotional level and for a film like this, that’s what matter most. The film has a very start and stop feel to it. One moment we have simple dialogue scenes between the group and the next we have big sweeping shots of them walking over mountains, trekking through deserts or battling their way through nature’s storms.
The film pretty much just alternates between these two types of scenes for the whole 133 minute affair. And with that runtime, the film goes on for far too long. If I had to see another shot of our band of travelers walking in a line over a mountain (or some other terrain), well let’s just say I almost turned it off. The amount of trudging found here is obscene. It gets very repetitive as the plot follows the path of journey through one terrain, face the obstacle that nature throws at you, make it through and then arrive at another threatening terrain. Rinse and repeat.
There always seems to be a distance between us and the characters. None of them really have their own personalities or unique traits. They’re almost interchangeable in a sense and extremely under-written. There is also never any real conflict between them. Weir simply turns his characters into chess pieces as he moves them around his board, never allowing for them to stop and develop. The film really could have benefited from more story or characterization because the way it stands, there is very little in the way of suspense or emotion. Important details are also hastily dealt with and we’re often left wondering how the group managed to accomplish a certain task or how they arrived at a particular outcome.
It’s not all bad though. Acting is strong across the board, despite some shoddy accents. The relationship that Ronan forms with Harris feels genuine and touching and as the anchor of the group, Sturgess proves himself once again as a leading man. Farrell is the energy driving the film forward as his high strung character always makes for an interesting moment. Also helping the film is the fact that it was shot on location in Pakistan, Morocco, and Bulgaria. This gives the film a more authentic feel and really does help us to see the treacherous conditions these men experienced. It’s visually stunning and cinematographer Russell Boyd really outdoes himself here. Production values get an A+ on this one.
Overall though, the film is a mixed bag. There some very positive aspects but the majority of the film feels monotonous and dull. The strong acting is weighed down by the weak characterization and the gorgeous cinematography and set pieces are overshadowed by the flimsy story and writing. There was a lot of potential here but Weir lost sight of the goal and instead of getting a great film, we get one that’s just mediocre.
The wonderful cinematography and lush visuals are really the star of the disc here. The bleak setting of the gulag carries a chilling look and the crisp white snow looks perfect. Forests are filled with lush greens and the desert’s threatening heat and monstrous sandstroms practically jump off the screen. Strong contrast is present throughout and breathtaking images frequent the screen. Some scenes are a bit too dark and minor crushing appears here and there, but nothing too serious. Clarity is impressive and the bit of grain here never becomes intrusive.
An immersive sound design will please your speakers. The environments are all convincing with harsh winds, thunderous rain, annoying mosquitos and treacherous sandstorms all sounding astonishingly real. Dialogue is clean and dynamics solid while surrounds get a nice work out in some of the more heavier weather scenes.
The only special feature here aside from a trailer is a 30 minute making of featurette. It’s quite good as it provides insightful interviews, shows us some footage from the on location shoot, lets us know some of the harsh weather conditions that they faced, gives us a peek at the production design and more. It’s a solid piece but it’s the only real feature.
While usually a great filmmaker, Weir has let me down again. It isn’t all bad, but on the whole it’s just not a very good film. It relies heavily on that emotional pull but it just never resonated with me. I couldn’t feel anything for these guys. I appreciate that the journey and their struggle was tremendously difficult but I just didn’t care for the actual characters, which led to me losing interest. Well, that and the monotonous nature of the film. If you’re still curious about the film then check it out but this is definitely not Weir’s strongest effort.
Movie Score: 3/5
Video Score: 4/5
Audio Score: 4.5/5
Extras Score: 2/5
Overall Score: 3/5
The Way Back was released on Blu-Ray on April 21st, 2011