Film Review: The Way Back
Much like the varying climates featured in the film, The Way Back is both cold and dizzying. Whilst the struggles in The Way Back evoke much empathy, it is not as easy to connect with the various characters. The journey, meanwhile, is bewildering in its scale.
Imprisoned in a Siberian gulag after his wife is forced to testify against him, Janusz is faced with twenty years in incredibly harsh conditions. Together with a group of other inmates, Janusz escapes the prison, but is faced with a 4,000 mile trek to freedom…
Peter Weir’s film excels in depicting the brutality of the group’s epic journey. The major failure of The Way Back, however, is the lack of back-story assigned to some of the characters. From the opening sequence and later dialogue, it is clear what drives Janusz to embark on such a journey. Some of the other characters do not benefit from such an insight, and appear to be included to make up the numbers more than anything else. This results in some indifference to the plight of these supporting characters in the often dangerous situations.
The Way Back, nevertheless, exhibits the endurance of man, both physically and mentally. Janusz’s recurring vision of reaching his front door illustrates what motivates him to keep going, even in the harshest of conditions. Similarly, Mr Smith’s exhaustion is equally understandable, given the circumstances. It is the strength of Janusz’s spirit that gives the film its heart.
Weir adeptly illustrates the effect of the journey on his characters. From the considerations of cannibalism in times of starvation to the injuries felt by the group, The Way Back effectively conveys the encumbrance of such a trek. Particularly brutal are the physical afflictions suffered by characters; the blistered faces and swollen feet emphasise the toll of walking in extreme conditions.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd captures both the beauty and the savagery of the various locations. Long shots serve to illustrate the vastness of the landscape, as well as how far the men have to travel. Siberia appears cold and cruel with its subdued tones and dankness, while the dessert seems equally unbearable with frequent cuts to shots of the blazing sun.
Jim Sturgess offers a competent performance as Janusz, a thoroughly likeable character. Ed Harris adds weight as Mr Smith, the only character that appears to really evolve during the course of the film. Colin Farrell’s Valka adds a few moments of lightness, although the Russian accent is a little patchy.
Overall, The Way Back triumphs the big picture over the individual accomplishment. The film is for the most part absorbing, although it is the imagery rather than the personal stories that endures.