Movie Review: The Way Back
By Edwin Davies
January 20, 2011
In the bleak white expanses of Siberia, a small group of prisoners plan to escape from the gulag in which they are being held. On the face of it, this shouldn't be too difficult. The gulag doesn't have high walls, security alarms, or even particularly diligent guards. Yet it is difficult because beyond the barbed wire lies miles of unbroken tundra. The gulag doesn't need to be Alcatraz or San Quentin, because anyone who escapes faces an almost impossible journey.
However, for Janusz (Jim Sturgess) and his ragtag group, dying free is better than slowly dying in captivity. During a particularly heavy snowstorm, they make their break for freedom, knowing that even though the snow will blind them, it blinds their pursuers just as much. For most films, the story of their scheming and escape would be enough, but for Janusz, Valka (Colin Farrell), Mister Smith (Ed Harris) and their cohorts, their journey has only just begun. In order to reach safety they have to travel thousands of miles to Mongolia, on foot, with limited supplies and the constant threat of being handed over to the authorities. So it's bit a of a toughie.
Whilst watching The Way Back, the first film from Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) in seven years, based on an astonishing true story, I found myself wishing that it was longer. Now, this is quite rare for me, because I'm from the school of thought that believes that pretty much all movies could be improved by losing some of the running time, and at 133 minutes The Way Back is none too sprightly to begin with. Still, I thought that it needed to be longer. Not because it is a work of unparalleled genius and I wanted it to go on forever - far from it; it's an okay movie that, in its best moments, is very good - but because there is a great movie in The Way Back which is suffocated by Weir's merciless editing.
Throughout the film, Weir lets scenes play out only as long as is needed for the audience to get the most basic information, then moves on to the next scene. Whilst this is an admirable quality in a thriller or a comedy, for a would-be epic like The Way Back, a bit of breathing room is necessary for its narrative and its characters to develop more. Yet, the film spends so much time struggling to breathe that it's practically asthmatic.
The first half an hour of the film takes place in the gulag, in which we meet our characters and are shown the deplorable states in which they live, but Weir breezes through establishing the setting so quickly that there is almost no time for him to establish the relationships between the characters. Janusz and Mister Smith go from being strangers to best friends in two scenes, with no sense of how they progressed from one to the other. This can at least partly be explained away by the men in the gulag being fundamentally suspicious of each other, but it makes their decision to work together seem surprising, verging on illogical. A little bit more time setting things up at the start could have deepened their relationship, which in turn could have paid dividends once they escaped.
Once the group escapes from the gulag, and picks up a stray Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) who breaks the shroud of isolation that stopped the men from becoming friends, this truncation of scenes only gets worse. Weir refuses to give time to those little triumphs and moments of joy - such as the moment when, whilst dying of thirst in a desert, they stumble across a well - which could add weight to the privation that they struggle against the rest of the time. Instead of allowing the characters, and the audience, to enjoy those scant victories, he just cuts straight to the next disaster. The same happens whenever the group encounter other people and run the risk of being discovered. Rather than eking suspense out of these scenes, Weir dispenses with them in an offhandedly casual manner. This gives the whole film a subdued feeling, as if Weir was so afraid of sensationalizing such a genuinely fantastic story that he winds up underplaying every aspect, making for a curiously flat experience that never really dips or peaks, just remains constant.
However, for all of my problems with the pacing of the film, I liked it. Peter Weir has, in my opinion, yet to make a boring film and The Way Back has a striking visual grandeur, attached to such a powerful and harrowing tale of survival, that it remains a diverting and entertaining watch, especially since it draws on a tradition of epic film-making that stretches back to the great works of David Lean (the scenes in the desert, particularly, strongly echo Lawrence of Arabia). The cast members also acquit themselves well even when, as in the case of Colin Farrell, they are lumbered with Russian accents that would make Boris Badenov blush. The standouts are Sturgess and Ronan, who demonstrate why they are amongst the most promising young actors currently working, and Harris, who remains one of the most charismatic and watchable actors currently working.
The Way Back is by no means a bad film. However, rather than being fascinating because of what it is, it is frustrating because of what it could have been. If a longer cut ever surfaces, one that gives more time to the characters and greater weight to their struggles, I would gladly check it out.