Taking The Long ‘Way Back’

Courtesy of Newmarket Films

Can you imagine walking every day for months over 4,000 miles? Given the high level of comfort we’ve received from technological advances as well as the state of society today, it’s difficult for our generation to truly comprehend the magnitude of this question, much less the people who accomplished such a feat, which “The Way Back” portrays.

After a seven-year hiatus, acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir returns with this film, an adaptation of Slawomir Rawicz’s book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom.” Perhaps unfortunately, his latest effort only musters a soft landing.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a young Polish soldier, is sent to a Soviet Siberian gulag in 1940 after his wife betrays him under duress of torture. Determined to return home to forgive her, he immediately decides to escape not just from the gulag, but from all of Siberia.

Joined by other prisoners such as an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell), Janusz succeeds in breaking out. However, the group soon discovers that in order to truly escape from the Soviets, they must continue walking south. Braving relentless landscapes and weather, the group treks thousands of miles, hoping to finally find freedom.

What keeps “The Way Back” from being a truly fine achievement are shortcomings in its storytelling — which is rather surprising, as Weir’s films are well known for this particular feature. When compared to, say, “Dead Poets Society” or “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” you cannot help but think that this film’s story falls a bit short of its promise.

In spite of its grand premise, the film sometimes lacks a feeling of excitement, and the result is a stagnant narrative. One such example is the fact that the film never depicts the escape from the gulag. Those who expect an exciting and tense escape sequence á la “The Great Escape” or “Stalag 17” will certainly be disappointed. While it is true that the film’s focus is on the group’s journey after the escape, such a scene would have brought life to the first somewhat lifeless 25 minutes.

Although the story does pick up after the first act, it also gets repetitive after a while, since it essentially consists of the group continually attempting to find more food and water as well as keep walking. This isn’t necessarily boring, as it’s quite compelling to see what these people face and endure, but the film breezes by such events. Throw in a subdued ending, and the story’s biggest weakness is revealed: it treats its subject somewhat lightly — almost as if Rawicz’s story is too incredible for the film itself to tell.

The characters who initially make up the group are introduced far too quickly. By the time they escape, you’ll probably recognize three of them instantly, and that is due to the actors’ — Sturgess, Harris and Farrell’s — faces. This initially gives the impression that the others are stock characters, and Weir should have spent more time developing them so that we can actually care about them.

Bringing the characters of Rawicz’s book to life is the cast, and they are terrific, with each of them speaking with the appropriate accents. Their performances are a success because we can perceive the chemistry between them that makes up the friendship and trust they share.

As group leader Janusz, Sturgess demonstrates his maturity as an actor. His dedication to the film is evident, for he communicates his character’s determination with the right emotions.

The group’s oldest member, Harris, masks Mr. Smith’s mysterious past with a calm and quiet demeanor. The best performance in the film comes from Farrell, whose presence is uncomfortably sinister yet humorous.

The always reliable Saoirse Ronan is lovely as Irena, an orphaned teenage Polish girl who later joins the group. Her most subtle role to date, she nevertheless effortlessly balances the naive perception of a child with the loving kindness of a close family member.

International actors like Dragoş Bucur and Gustaf Skarsgård play the rest of the group. While they don’t leave much of an impact, their interactions seem genuine.

It’s interesting to note that there is little to no human threat to the group; instead, their true enemy is nature, and they are continually pitted against this formidable and powerful force. Whether nature comes in the form of the uncompromising sun and snow or stubborn deserts and mountains, cinematographer Russell Boyd captures it all on camera. Such images illustrate the characters surrounded by these conditions, and thus we are always reminded of the journey’s scale.

Accompanying these images is the film’s impeccable sound design, showing the journey’s severity. The howling winds of sandstorms and snowstorms and the sharp cracking of ice do just that.

The makeup is instantaneously noticeable, as it helps us realize how big of a burden the trek has on the human body. As the group heads deeper south, their faces become dry from sunstroke, their teeth yellow and brown, their lips chapped and parched.

In the end, “The Way Back” never really lives up to the grandeur of the story it tries to portray because its treatment is too shallow. However, the wonderful cast and superb technical accomplishments are enough to let the film be a solid one, though a mere shadow of the epic journey itself.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars