Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Saiorse Ronan
Peter Weir, Keith R. Clarke, Slavomir Rawicz
Trailer; Behind the Scenes Featurette
It seems unusual to have a Peter Weir film, director of such films as Master and Commander and Witness, that is released AFTER the awards season rush...tauntingly close, as if to say that the film itself is simply tauntingly close yet ultimately falls short of awards cred.
Unfortunately, this hypothetical assumption isn't that far from the truth.
Virtually every frame of Weir's The Way Back is achingly close to becoming Weir's latest cinematic classic, an epic story brought breathtakingly to life with lensing by Russell Boyd that captures nature at its most menacing and most extraordinarily beautiful in ways that are likely only rivaled these days by Terence Malick.
Said to be inspired by a true (but fairly suspect) story, The Way Back tells the tale of Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole who was sent to an isolated Siberian gulag in 1939. Seemingly destined to rot away in this impenetrable and inescapable gulag, Janusz instead forges the necessarily alliances to attempt the impossible in an effort to attain freedom once again.
The film is based upon a "memoir" by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish soldier who was actually sentenced to the gulag in 1939 on what was said to be trumped up charges. However, it's unclear and unverifiable that the soldier ever attempted and/or completed such an escape attempt or if, perhaps, it was a tale he heard while a prisoner in the camp. It should be noted that Weir and his production team have done quite a bit of background research in the course of producing this film to supplement their adaptation of the 1956 book upon which the film is based, yet questions remain. While the truthfulness of the film's story may seem irrelevant, its lack of authenticity may very well be at least part of what explains a disconcerting lack of character development in a film where nature itself feels like the leading player and the actors merely supporting nature's every whim.
Janusz's key supporting players are Volka (Colin Farrell), a convict who possesses a weapon and the willingness to use it, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a soft-spoken American and an actor (Mark Strong). Along the way, and it goes without saying that not all who escape will survive, the men encounter a young wayward girl (Saiorse Ronan) who is herself on the run in this harsh territory.
It's not surprising that actors the caliber of Colin Farrell and Ed Harris would be attracted to such a film. Both actors have long possessed a rather extreme devotion to the craft of acting, often choosing hardcore indie projects rather than standard Hollywood fare. While The Way Back must be considered at least modestly "Hollywood" given its distribution by Newmarket Films, Weir's filmmaking is decidedly old school and largely avoidant of tech gimmicks and the all too common CGI in favor of sweeping landscapes in genuinely overwhelming settings that would be unthinkable for many of today's spoiled Hollywood stars. While lead Jim Sturgess adds to his acting cred here, it's almost a pity that either Farrell or Harris weren't placed in the lead as both actors are far more commanding in their performances than Sturgess. While it's reasonable that the film is unlikely to garner any awards attention, it's a pity that Harris, in particular, hasn't attracted a bit of recognition for his performance here. An argument could easily be made for Farrell, as well, who continues to be one of Hollywood and the indie world's most dependable, diverse and adventurous actors. Even when he doesn't quite succeed, Farrell is easily one of contemporary cinema's most admirable and courageous actors.
The scenery is key here and the scenery is amazing as our players experience a 4,000 mile venture that includes mountains, blizzards, forests, deserts and just about everything else you can imagine along the way. The presence of the young Saiorse Ronan is particularly welcome here, giving the film a touch of lightness and breathing room that is nicely placed and paced and ultimately making the film's 133 minute run time far more manageable.
Had more devotion been paid to creating characters with whom we could identify and not just memorable details, it's completely likely that Peter Weir would be looking at his seventh Oscar nomination for this beautiful to behold yet impossible to love film. For the sheer art of true moviemaking at its old school finest, it's impossible to not recommend viewing The Way Back, the way movies were made, indeed, way back.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic