For fledgling filmmakers looking to emulate the success of a local auteur, the career Peter Weir provides an inspirational model. Starting in television as a production assistant on The Mavis Bramston Show, he graduated to short films, TV efforts and documentaries before astounding the industry with his first feature-length film The Cars That Ate Paris. His second offering, the haunting Picnic At Hanging Rock, is rightfully considered one of Australia’s greatest works, drawing national as well as international acclaim. Thriller The Last Wave, iconic war movie Gallipoli and political drama The Year Of Living Dangerously followed, before Weir made his U.S. debut with Witness. The remainder of his output has been global rather than local, ranging from The Mosquito Coast to Dead Poets Society, Green Card to Fearless, and The Truman Show to Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World. After an eight year absence, the six-time Academy Award nominee returned with his thirteenth effort, world war II offering The Way Back based on Sławomir Rawicz’s book “The Long Walk”.
Sentenced to a twenty year term in a Russian gulag after being named as a spy by his wife, Polish soldier Janusz (Jim Sturgess, Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’Hoole) enters the Siberian camp with little hope. Befriending fellow convict Khabarov (Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes), he begins to conceive a plan to flee captivity, inspired by his new friend’s insistence that escaping is possible. Veteran American inmate Mr Smith (Ed Harris, Appaloosa) is dismissive of the scheme, yet determined to be involved. When a severe snowstorm hits the area, Janusz takes his chance, although Khabarov declines to go along. With Mr Smith and a band of fellow prisoners in tow, the group breaks free in search of safety from the long arm of Communism. Together, criminal Valka (Colin Farrell, Crazy Heart), artist Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean, The Army Of Crime), youthful Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky, The Counterfeiters), priest Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård, Trust Me) and accountant Zoran (Dragos Bucur, Youth Without Youth) attempt to follow Janusz and Mr Smith across snow fields and desert plains as they travel from Siberia through Russia to Mongolia, then via China to India and finally Tibet, with displaced teen Irena (Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones) joining the trek along the way.
The power of the individual human spirit in overcoming great adversity in times of global strife has consistently moved audiences for decades, and more recently we have seen some unique versions of those unsung battlers from the Second World War in the form of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Sarah’s Key. In many ways, there is nothing especially new (at least cinematically) about the journey of a group of men (and one woman) from a prison camp to freedom, with The Way Back following in the grand tradition of The Great Escape, A Man Escaped, Grand Illusion and countless others. Yet few have done so with the epic grandeur that Weir attempts here, and pulls off with all of the expertise and craftsmanship that one would expect from a director of this standing’s thirteenth feature. It is a unique take on a major historical turning point in world history, and the doubts cast by a BBC documentary over Sławomir Rawicz’s version of events is almost irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if he was actually released by the Russians in 1942 – or that he mentions seeing two yeti in the mountains, for example – because it is a good story. Naturally, the compressed nature of cinematic storytelling eschews these quibbly ‘facts’ for elements that will keep the audience on the precipice of the mountain for as long as possible, and on this level there can be no questioning of the film’s dramatic impact.
Pacing is a bit of an issue in the first half of the film, with the first act prior to the escape attempt overstaying its welcome. This is, after all, the story of men escaping, and while it is important to establish what it is they are escaping from, perhaps a little bit too much time is spent in the Stalag before the group finally makes a break for freedom. It does seem to be impossible to tell a tale of a 4,000-mile walk in just over two-hours, and certain elements (such as the final journey over the mountains to India) seem to be rushed in the edit. All of this would be a problem were it not for the strength of the characters at the heart of the film. Just as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy would be a story about a really long walk with a dramatic conclusion without a wealth of great actors, so too is The Way Back blessed with a terrific cast. The opening text tells us that only three men make it out alive, and it is a testament to the casting that we get attached to every member of the ragtag crew, star and lesser known actors alike. Only Colin Farrell seems a little out of step as the Russian criminal who joins the group, with his performance bordering on the parody. Regardless, with backdrops as magnificent as this – and story that is literally too good to be believed – this is a strong entry that allows you to feel every step of the journey.
The Reel Bits: A visually impressive and finely acted epic drama perhaps only let down by some pacing issues. It is great to have Peter Weir back on the big screen, and we hope that we don’t have to wait another decade for him to make his way back to the cinemas.
The Way Back is released on February 24, 2011 in Australia by Roadshow Films.