The Way Back

February 22, 2011

As the lights go up at the end of this gruelling film, you feel like turning to your neighbour and saying: “Just leave me here. I’m done for. Go on, you can make it!” It’s a long way back to George Street after trudging 6,500 kilometres with a handful of fugitives from a Soviet prison camp. You have struggled through snowstorms at minus 40 degree temperatures; staggered zombie-like across a scorching, featureless desert; clambered up the sheer sides of the Himalayas. When this movie eventually makes it to TV it will provide matchless opportunities to fill commercial breaks with ads for home heating, air conditioning, and sunscreen.

One resists the cliché, “long-awaited” in describing Peter Weir’s first film in seven years. After such an interval is anybody still waiting? Certainly not in corporate Hollywood, which has grown so addicted to big budget, childrens’ features in 3D, that there is less and less scope for a director who wants to make movies for grown-ups.
The major funding for The Way Back came from National Geographic, who presumably do not require a billion dollar profit before they declare a project successful.

There may be a limited popular appeal for a film that tells the story of a small group of prisoners who escape from a Siberian Gulag and take a long walk to freedom. That’s the entire plot. The power of the film comes from Russell Boyd’s usual fine cinematography, and impressive performances by actors such as Ed Harris as the haunted, stoic Mr. Smith, Colin Farrell as the psychotic Valka, and Saoirse Ronan playing the waif-like but compelling, Irena. Most impressive of all is Weir’s ability to create atmosphere through attention to small details – the minutiae of dirty clothes, old boots, swollen ankles and toes. There are also striking moments of symbolism, as when Irena washes Mr. Smith’s bloodied feet in a Christ-like gesture. It seems that this girl, whom they thought to be a burden, might actually be their savior.

While a director such as John Duigan is capable of making any backdrop look like a set, Weir’s sets always feel disturbingly real. His evocation of the Gulag is just as persuasive as his reconstruction of life on board a British man-of-war in his previous venture, Master and Commander (2003). No other film ever captured so well the rigours of life on board one of these cramped vessels, and now Weir has made a brief attempt at revitalising another Hollywood sub-genre: the prison camp. Yet the Gulag scenes are only a prelude for the extended hike that absorbs the bulk of the narrative.

Based on Slavomir Rawicz’s book, The Long Walk (1956), this is purportedly a true story, but there is scant evidence to back up these claims. Despite Weir’s skill in creating a realistic scenario the tale feels wildly improbable. It’s hard to believe the worn-out escapees could have crossed the Gobi desert with so little food and water.

Does it matter whether the story is fact or fiction? Many people assumed incorrectly that Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) was based on a true story. We may be too preoccupied with this true-or-false dilemma because a cinematic reconstruction can never, by definition, be true; just as René Magritte’s painting of a pipe was not actually a pipe.

If The Way Back lacks that last degree of dramatic tension it is because we are told at the start of the film that three men would arrive in India. From that point onward we are fully aware that only three of the original group will make it to safety. We subconsciously prepare ourselves for the inevitable casualties, keeping a psychic distance from the characters. It is almost as though Weir is actively discouraging empathy. We observe the walkers in painful close-up, we gradually learn snippets about their lives, but we remain detached from their ordeal.

Was it really necessary to give away the ending before the movie had begun? It would have been a very different experience for the viewer if there had been a lingering doubt as to whether any or all of the fugitives would survive. With the film’s hasty last scene, which rushes forward some forty years, tension has been sacrificed for a broader historical perspective. It is as if Weir wants to emphasise the greater horror of the Soviet system, and tell us that freedom is always worth fighting for, no matter how forbidding the odds.

This conclusion feels forced after two hours of carefully constructed human drama. The long march to freedom is transformed into a metaphor for Eastern Europe’s protracted struggle to free itself from Soviet Communism. This is a rather crude moral for a story that unfolds in a complex and subtle manner. The Way Back will be remembered not for its political message, but for the skill of its director and cinematographer, and the quality of its performances. It may be that history is brought more vividly to life when portrayed in the form of a slow march rather than a rushing newsreel.

Published for The Australian Financial Review, February 22, 2011