Directed by: Peter Weir.
Written By: Keith R. Clarke & Peter Weir based on the book by Slavomir Rawicz.
Starring: Jim Sturgess (Janusz), Colin Farrell (Valka), Ed Harris (Mr. Smith), Saoirse Ronan (Irena), Dragos Bucur (Zoran), Alexandru Potocean (Tomasz), Gustaf Skarsgård (Voss), Mark Strong (Khabarov), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Kazik), Igor Gnezdilov (Bohdan).
Peter Weir’s The Way Back is the type of old school, Hollywood epic that Hollywood has all but forgotten how to make. You can easily imagine David Lean doing this movie 50 years ago, and it having the same sort of feel as his films The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago or A Passage to India. It is the inspiring true life story (all the true part of that has come into question) about a group of men who escape from a Siberian prison in 1939, and make their way to India, through brutal winter conditions, and freedom.
The movie opens with an intense scene where a Polish man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is being questioned by the Soviet police. They tell him that they have information that he is a spy, and an enemy to the state. He denies this – and then they bring in their witness against him – his own wife. He is found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It isn’t long before he gets the lay of the land in jail – and makes a few friends. He doesn’t want to rot in prison for two decades – he feels he will never survive it. And soon Janusz, along with an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a Russian gangster running from creditors named Valka (Colin Farrell) and a few of Janusz’s Polish friends. Zoran (Dragos Bucur), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean) and Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard) make a break for it. They find themselves in the harsh Siberian wilderness during winter – and it quickly becomes clear that not all of them will survive.
This is a story full of triumph of the human spirit, and that works to a certain extent. I feel the movie could have made its characters a little more complex – they remain cookie cutter characters for most of the films running time. If they cast wasn’t so strong, it would have been hard to tell the characters apart. Jim Sturgess is fine in the lead role – a little bland perhaps, but sometimes you need a bland character at the heart of your movie to keep it grounded. Much better is Colin Farrell, doing a wonderfully comic Russian accent (without going over the top into Natasha and Boris territory) and Ed Harris, as the stoic and mainly silent Mr. Smith. A welcome addition to the cast is added along the way with Irena (Saorise Ronan), who kind of acts as a go between all these strong, mainly silent men. Without her, we probably wouldn’t get to know the characters at all. Like Farrell, the movie misses her when she is not on screen.
The filmmaking by Weir is impeccable – that much should pretty much go without saying given Weir’s track record. It has been 8 long years since he got behind the camera and made perhaps his best film – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. This film doesn’t reach those heights, but it has the same sort of old school Hollywood film that I found kind of refreshing. It’s odd how things work – during the 1960s, these Goliath old school epics felt too old fashioned for the new Hollywood. Now, they feel like a refreshing throwback to an era that Hollywood has forgotten. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess.
I admired The Way Back more than I actually loved it. It is true that the characters who are not played by movie stars start to blend together during the course of the journey – they really aren’t well defined, and I think had all the characters been played by unknown actors; the film may have become hopelessly muddled. Yet, watching the film on the big screen is perhaps the only way to get the enormity of the undertaking – not just of the film, but the journey itself. If you want to see the movie, I implore you not to wait for the DVD because the majesty of the vistas will be lost on the small screen. Overall, despite my problems with The Way Back, I feel it is an excellent example of the type of film Hollywood no longer makes – and in that regard it made me a little sad that the film wasn’t just a little bit better.