Title: The Way Back
Directed By: Peter Weir
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Dragos Bucur, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Alexandru Potocean, Saoirse Ronan, Gustaf Skarsgard, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky
No, it’s not right to knock a film for a lengthy runtime, but if a movie is pushing two hours, it better be able to justify it. In The Way Back’s case it does – kind of. While the first portion of the film drags considerably despite impressively effective imagery, it isn’t until over an hour into it that things really become compelling. There’s nothing wrong with a film that saves the best for last, but it still needs to be entertaining while you’re waiting for the good stuff and The Way Back comes a little too close to missing that mark.
In the midst of Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sent to a Siberian gulag after his wife is coerced into convicting him of espionage and criticizing the Communist Party. It doesn’t take long for Janusz to realize he’ll never survive his 20-year sentence and dreams of freedom. As the conditions worsen with the prisoners being forced to brave terrible blizzards and live on measly portions of food, other inmates become aware of Janusz’s plan and together they make their escape.
There’s Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), the stoic American, Valka (Colin Farrell), one of the few real criminals in the camp, Zoran (Dragos Bucur), a former accountant, Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), a sketch artist who survived in the camp by selling pictures of naked women, Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard), a priest and Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), the youngest of the bunch who suffers from night blindness. Together they must brave the wilderness, the elements and the Communist regime in order to trek south to safety in Mongolia.
In terms of the story, The Way Back is an instant winner simply due to its true roots. The film grew from the book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom as well as a number of first-person accounts. How can you criticize a tale of such honest bravery, heroics and steadfastness? Well, on the surface, there’s really no need to; this story is absolutely awe-inspiring. On the other hand, when you move past the general and turn a keen eye to the specifics, some flaws emerge.
The first portion of the film focuses on Janusz’s time in Siberia, which is particularly heart wrenching not because you care for the main character, rather due to the stimulating visuals. Cinematographer Russell Boyd does such a fantastic job of setting the scene, you can practically feel the bone-chilling temperatures yourself. While this is great for Boyd, his work is really just masking the poor character development.
Both Janusz and Valka have particularly powerful introductions, but the growth stops there. As for the other players, Mr. Smith is established as the cliché camp loner who walks around as though he doesn’t mind dying while the others are entirely forgetful until well into their journey through the film. Weir is so keen on showing the men walking and running from place to place, he seemingly forgot that that’s useless in terms of exposition. Boyd is so successful conveying their hardship, he could have done so in half the amount of time, leaving far more minutes to devote to getting to know the characters.
Once we reach the halfway point and Saoirse Ronan enters the story as Irena, a runaway also searching for a safe haven, the emotional power of the story really starts to kick in. Perhaps it’s just because at this point we’ve spent so much time with the group, but minus Farrell’s character’s far too swift exit, just about every hardship they struggle through is quite poignant. It may take half of the film, but at this point both the writing and the performances peak and wind up on par with Boyd’s work, resulting in an absolutely stellar last hour. In fact, it’ll be hard to keep your eyes from welling up during one, possibly two moments.
It really is too bad Weir isn’t able to achieve the emotions this story is capable of evoking. He had just about everything on his side from excellent performances, moving visuals, effective music and more. If only he had nailed the character development right from the start, The Way Back’s 133-minute runtime would have been justified all the way through. However, that’s not the case and by the time you get to the part of the film that really is effectual, you’ve already checked your watch about a half dozen times.
By Perri Nemiroff