“In 1941 a mixed group of desperate prisoners broke out of a remote Siberian gulag and made a gruelling overland journey of four thousand miles south to India. This is their story.”
One of the best things about the cinematic experience is being shown something you haven’t seen before. It doesn’t have to be jaw-dropping; not every movie has to take us to Pandora. Sometimes it’s a new take on a relationship dynamic, or a window on a corner of our culture that doesn’t get much notice. Thanks in no small part to production house National Geographic Films there’s plenty to see in Peter Weir’s latest offering; the film’s commitment to location shooting gives it an epic sweep reminiscent of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the very real and very exotic locales giving the story a sense of gravitas and wonder that the digital backlot just cannot match. Weir is a canny enough filmmaker to know that he doesn’t need to embellish the proceedings, and so is content to let his creative choices remain mostly invisible, forefronting his characters and their story instead.
And what a story it is. Never mind that it probably never happened, or at least didn’t happen to the people it supposedly involved, or at the very least didn’t go down the way it did according to Slawomir Rawicz, whose book The Long Walk inspired the screenplay. The Way Back is a story of triumph over adversity and the indomitability of the human spirit, and if it didn’t really happen, well, it should have. Jim Sturgess’s Janusz, a young Pole sentenced to twenty years after his wife is tortured into bearing false witness against him, drives the plot with his oddly humble determination to not let the world crush him. It’s a nice bit of solid, unshowy acting, but Sturgess is somewhat overshadowed by the more familiar faces in the ensemble. Ed Harris is his usual reliable self as the grizzled, taciturn Mr Smith, an American prisoner who – at least initially – refuses to let sentiment or human feeling sway his decisions, but the real revelation is Colin Farrell. We should all breathe a sigh of relief that Farrell’s bid to be a A-list star seems to have fizzled if it means he’ll be tackling more offbeat roles like that of Valka, the tattooed Russian Mafiya thug who bullies his way into the protagonists’ escape attempt. Although his actions and demeanour are repellent, Vanka is a fascinating character, an institutionalised criminal who swears fealty to the idealistic Janusz, and proves to be one of the most useful and committed members of the team.
Clocking in at over two hours, The Way Back is a sometimes trying experience, and a bit of judicious editing might have corrected the pacing problems that crop up in the second half of the film, but such faults are easy to overlook. In a time when franchises are more valued than films and an important filmmaker like Ridley Scott seriously considers making a Monopoly movie, Weir’s epic hearkens back to a period when story, not brand recognition, was king, and as such is worth investigation.