One of the most misunderstood and underrated films of the past couple of years has been The Way Back by Peter Weir. Before it came out, I remember reading an article lamenting how the Hollywood distribution landscape had changed so much over the previous decade that Weir — an Oscar nominated and widely admired filmmaker — could no longer get studio backing and distribution for his latest effort. Just seven years earlier, Twentieth Century Fox put its weight behind the production and distribution of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), which went on to land 10 Academy Award nominations (including two for Weir). But, by the time of The Way Back, Weir’s financiers and distributors consisted of a network of fairly small companies geared for the art-house market. Not that the look and quality of The Way Back suffers, but it’s sad all the same because the absence of heavyweight companies with deep pockets as well as far-reaching distribution and marketing muscle could really have helped this ambitious and deserving film reach a wider audience. As it stands, Weir and his cinema — once A-list sure bets — risk becoming overshadowed by the studios’ desire to back only tentpole franchises engineered for maximum box office.
The Way Back follows a group of prison-camp escapees during WWII as they trek the thousands of miles from Siberia to safe asylum in British-occupied India. This is not an action or a suspense film, though Wier fashions elements of both into his tale. This is not a character study, particularly, since none of the characters — save that of Janusz, a political prisoner played by Jim Sturgess — really assumes fully rounded dimensions. There are two others, a cutthroat ex-criminal played by Colin Farrell and an enigmatic American played by Ed Harris who command our attention with their hard-edged personalities, their jaded world views. Gradually, through their cooperation and grit, we become fond of them, as we do the rest in the group because of their pure and enduring will to live. For the most part, The Way Back is a quiet and reflective experience in which its characters — and we, the audience — weigh constantly whether it isn’t better to just lie down and die. But always these men — and the one young Polish woman who joins them, played by Saoirse Ronan — push onwards, haggard, parched, famished, but driven toward life, escape, a more hopeful future.
Weir’s drama is decidedly low-key and exists largely as one between the individual and the passing landscape. The men distract themselves with conversations about chicken recipes as they subsist on tree bark, trudge on on swollen feet wrapped in rags, and dream of the next sip of water or a bit of real food. The Way Back is like a prison film and a prison escape film in one, because upon escaping the real prison, the group finds itself in another one, extending 4000 miles from end to end. They drop like flies as they go, one by one, their graves indicated by the markers like bread crumbs along the way. And there are surprising decisions too as, for instance, when Farrell’s character realizes that Mother Russia is the only home for him, for better or worse. His fate is a haunting one, visualized in the image of a lone man against the rugged, unforgiving starkness of his homeland, and we can’t help but wonder what lies ahead for him. Whether The Way Back is fiction or not isn’t really important (there are assertions that the story, despite its claim as being based-on-fact, is all fabrication). There are greater concerns in the film, especially the running desire for redemption that inspires Janusz. Even after his betrayal, the man isn’t angry at his wife, he understands the duress under which she had to give him up. His goal now is to tell her he forgives her. Harris’s story too is anchored by the guilt he feels towards his child.
Weir maintains a sure, subtle hand throughout. His one major story flaw is that he doesn’t allow for enough buildup at the prison camp before the men stage their breakout. There isn’t enough of a sense of last-straw desperation or, for that matter, any sense of coordinated planning, things that would’ve added suspense to the breakout once it did happen. As it is, the breakout comes abruptly, too soon, and seems too easy, amounting only to a bunch of men running wildly through the woods as dogs and soldiers pursue. They have only to run hard enough and long enough to secure their chance at survival. Still, in the passages that follow, Weir offers a solid, resonant meditation on survival, on hope, on the value of life in the face of implacable hostility, portrayed memorably by an excellent cast and Weir’s vast, brutal, awe-inspiring landscapes.
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: Keith R. Clarke, Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Colin Farrell