The Way Back

The Way Back


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Siberia is a long way from anywhere, the gulag a far from civilised way to treat anyone. Far as those places may be from our imaginings, they're even further in person. The prospect, then, of escaping to India, and on foot, is a daunting one. Yet a band of convicts (some unjustly held, others less so) intend to do just that, and Peter Weir's film follows them most steps of the way.

The Way Back is apparently based on a true story, and as a National Geographic production it's certainly got a documentary feel. With gorgeous landscapes, it's a convincing portrait of tenacity and determination. The stellar cast do their best, but weaknesses of script and difficulties with pacing make the gruelling journey occasionally tedious.

Copy picture

Slawomir Rawicz's 'autobiography' (apparently based on the story of Witold Glinski, another veteran) starts in Poland, after the twin invasions: the Nazis, of course, though the Axis is scarcely mentioned during the film; more importantly to our story, however, the Soviets, the Red Army of Comrade Stalin. With forced confessions, and worse, the labour camps of the far and frozen East must be topped-up. Into their insatiable forestry and mines are thrown Poles, Lithuanians, the professional Russian criminals with their tattoos and arcane traditions, and at least one American.

Ed Harris is that American, an architect by the name of Smith, his usually grizzly self - when the escapees introduce themselves he gives his first name as Mister. He does avuncular, steely, paternal, determined, even breaking out the wry voice of experience. The trailer is heavy with nominations and awards, and this is a movie led by its actors - Weir's direction does make the most of the landscapes they wander through, but there are plenty of close-ups, and with good reason. Colin Farrell makes a decent stab at a Russian accent as the knife-weilding Valka, but the heart of the film is Janusz, played by Jim Sturgess. While it's Smith who pushes for escape it's Janusz who provides the burning desire to be home.

Sturgess is a relative newcomer in comparison to Farrell and Harris, his CV as notable for his role in The Owls Of Ga'Hoole as in college-club card-counting caper 21. He's good, indeed, the whole film is, but it's weakened by some odd choices. Even with the talent on display and the usual fears of script-immunity The Way Back builds its tension in early. We can see how many have set off, but the setup tells us only three arrive in India. Harris, Farrell, even Sturgess we worry about, and so too the rest of the cast. Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, and Sairse Ronan all manage to keep up (in acting terms, at least), and there are some striking minor roles - Sattar Dikambayev happens upon them on horseback, and commands the respect that would see him gift them water before they face the desert. Farrell is good too, closer to the subtlety he displays in Ondine than his gurning in Daredevil as Bullseye.

The Gobi Desert, the Mongolian steppe, the Himalayas, Siberian forests, the massive Lake Baikal, all get their shot. It's presumably stand-in landscapes, however, as principal filming was in Bulgaria, India, and Morocco, with post-production in Australia. Substituted landscapes aside, there are some other odd moments. The Sino-Soviet boundary, or at least the Mongolian frontier is signalled by the sudden appearance of flutes in Burkhard Dallwitz's score. He's worked with Weir before, on The Truman Show (as did Harris), but neither's work here is as inventive as that film. The story (or at least its inspiration's inspiration) is a striking one, but the execution here is, well, pedestrian.

With a writing credit for Weir, screenplay duties are also shared by Keith R Clarke, whose only non-documentary writing credit was Nineties TV movie In Search of Dr. Seuss. The story is a singular achievement, but the film is overly episodic. Each character has a scene, a reason to hate the Soviets, each environment contains a challenge that we know will somehow be overcome. Text on the screen isn't always lazy film-making, but it's often clumsy, and the epilogue seems hewn from cheap television - shoes superimposed over stock footage, though culminating in a touching coda which calls back to earlier moments.

It's not just geographically long as a tale. Its two hours drags in places, and for all its real roots the ending feels forced. While beautifully shot, well acted and spiritually uplifting, it can on occasion be plodding. The occasional mis-step into cliché does it no favours, and that's a real shame. There's such a quantity of talent involved that it is sad that The Way Back occasionally loses its footing.

Reviewed on: 26 Dec 2010
Share this with others on...
The Way Back packshot
Soldiers escaping from a Siberian gulag decide to walk all the way to India.
Amazon link

Director: Peter Weir

Writer: Keith R. Clarke, based on the book by Slavomir Rawicz

Starring: Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mariy Grigorov

Year: 2010

Runtime: 133 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


Search database: