Starring: Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Dejan Angelov, Dragos Bucur, Mark Strong
Director: Peter Weir
Writer(s): Keith R. Clarke, Peter Weir, Slavomir Rawicz (novel)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Original Score: Burkhard Von Dallwitz
Running Time: 133 mins.
Some films just seem to be destined for viewing at a specific time of the week, for example The Way Back is without a doubt a Sunday Afternoon film, a sweeping epic taking in the hardships of the world and concerning a quest to reach a seemingly impossible goal against all odds. If this sounds like The Lord of the Rings, it kind of is, minus the fantasy elements and excitement but with lashings of “serious tone” to help try to make us empathise with the plight of the men, and woman, who journey across hellish landscapes to find freedom.
It does not start out this way, the first 30 minutes are a gripping prison film set in a Russian Gulag (essentially the Soviet’s equivalent of a concentration camp), there we see Jim Sturgess new arrival Janusz going through the motions of getting to know the factions of power within the prison (run by thieves and killers including Colin Farrell’s Valka) and having hopes of escaping the brutality of the place planted in his mind by Mark Strong’s Khabarov, an actor who is imprisoned simply for playing the part of an old-regine aristocrat, a fact that manages to find some lightness in the earlier stages of a film that is bereft of anything approaching humour in the latter stages.
The charisma possessed by Strong and used to such great effect is sorely missed and only Farrell comes close to keeping up this end of a tale in need of a little escapism, sadly he too disappears some way through as the shift towards things being ever more bleak and serious continues. It is this heavy handed nature of direction and acting that oddly detracts from the drama when we should be drawn in, Peter Weir is an excellent director fully capable of sweeping epics that are honed around strong characters (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), and this focus on character is the crux on which all of his films hang regardless of plotting.
However here the story is spread far too thin, leaving us with stretches where nothing happens save for searching for food/water amidst dessert or mountain ranges interspersed with campsite conversations that are often mumbled or retread already covered ground, meaning that even after what feels like hours spent with these men we have learnt next to nothing about them, Weir seems to yearn for the camaraderie of Saving Private Ryan or indeed LOTR but instead gets a rather distant study of men whom we are not quite sure to have been good or bad, except for the more highly strung (and tellingly entertaining) Valka.
In this kind of film it is often the people met or the more dramatic events that keep the pacing both interesting and gripping, in the final third neither of these chords are struck as the endless desert the men must navigate feels just that, endless. The only events are very minor, maybe in trying to keep a low key tone? but if this were the case the characters needed to be more interesting, with the introduction of a young lady/girl in the form of Saorise Ronan adding nothing and feeling totally out of place save the cliched awakening of one characters fatherly instincts.
Though my verdict may seem damning this is a far from bad film, it is shot beautifully, as to be expected by a National Geographic production, and the performances while not always gripping are good and convincing without being revelatory, Farrell and Strong stand out most owing to theirs being the more interesting and entertaining turns but Sturgess is a solid lead layering heroism and fragility well but as mentioned before with little depth in the script it is hard to empathise with him. The pace is slow, yet deliberate, and highlights my reasoning for this as a Sunday afternoon film, one that you can doze while watching and provides some beautiful sights and a convincingly gritty and “real” story, if not the most entertaining one.
The Way Back is an admirable effort from Weir to not get bogged down with emotion and focus on human endurance, man vs. nature if you will, however it lacks the kinetic energy and likeable nature of this month’s other survival story 127 Hours, meaning this is an experience best left for a lazy Sunday as opposed to a sluggish cinema viewing.