Review: The Way Back

The Way Back | Peter Weir, 2010

Some time ago, a young Australian made his directorial debut with a film about the disappearance of a group of schoolgirls who mysteriously disappear during a picnic. That you man was Peter Weir, and the movie was Picnic at Hanging Rock. Since then, the movie became a classic, and it still remains one of the biggest cinematic mysteries of all time. As for the director, he went on to make movies like Witness, Dead Poets Society, Green Card, The Truman Show, and his biggest hit, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. One would think that with a resume that included those gems, and plenty of other films, Weir would have some sort of pass to make any movie that he wanted and get distribution by a major studio, or at least the specialty division of a major studio. But it turns out, that in the era where studios are racing to see who stars production on a gritty retelling of Snow White first, or where every 80s movie is getting a remake, studios just don’t have the balls to take a gamble on a 29 million dollar epic that puts just about 90 percent of all blockbusters. It’s really a shame that this movie couldn’t nab a greater studio to give it the proper release it deserved, as it is one of the best movies of 2010.

With The Way Back, Weir tries to make something that no one has attempted in a while: the David Lean epic. By that I mean a movie set in an exotic land, with larger-than-life characters in unbelievable situations that shows us how difficult the world can be when we are against man, and especially against nature. This movie is set during the early years of World War II. Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a polish man, is sent to a Siberian prison accused of being a spy (which, of course, he isn’t). He doesn’t want to be in there for long, so he works out an escape plan that involved him walking more than 1000 miles to Mongolia and escaping Siberia. He is soon joined by Mister Smith (Ed Harris), Valka (Collin Farrell), and a few others in his journey. And so, they escape, and the hardest part of their journey begins.

Reading the reviews, I saw that the biggest complain they had was that once they escape the prison, there is very little conflict between the few that escaped and they are put in very few dangerous situations. But isn’t the fact that they have to walk hundreds of miles to find freedom, with very little food and water at their disposal, and with nothing to guide them other than Janusz experience in the forests enough conflict? Where there not enough explosions to keep them engaged? I don’t know what got into them, but for me, it was riveting.

The other major complaint that critics seemed to have was that it was too episodic. And I do agree that this is the biggest flaw in the film. I understand that there was no other way to tell this particular story buy I do wish that Weir and his co-writer had found a way around that. This structure that was used made me feel like when I’m reading a book and I’ve read like 50 pages of a chapter, and then I turn to see how many pages there are left in the chapter and seeing that there are still like 100 to go. On one side, it made me feel the character’s plight more, and on the other, it made the experience more tiring. This is really the only complaint I have. The rest of the movie is pretty great, starting with the cast.

At first glance, Jim Sturgess’s performance is not that great, mainly because he doesn’t seem to be made of leadership material. But the thing is, that is what Weir wanted us to think. He wanted to make us wonder why the other prisoners would blindly trust him with their lives. And on that front, Sturgess succeeded.  Ed Harris already has the “loner with a heart of gold” act down; therefore, he is pefect for this character. Collin Farrell does the best kind of scenery chewing and turns in his second-best performance. And Saoirse Ronan gave more proof that she is the best young actress working today with her performance as Irena, a young orphan who joins the men in their journey, and breaks though their rough hearts.

Weir, meanwhile, shows why he’s had such a long career. He lets the story talk and doesn’t stylize things too much, which is great for a movie like this. I loved it that when a character dies, he handles it with grace and lets the actors carry the load. No melodrama, no swelling and bombastic music, none of that. He just lets things flow naturally. Also, he worked with his production team so well that they made a movie that looked like it cost 100 million dollars to make for only 30 million. The cinematography, while not very pretty is great in capturing the harsh terrains that the characters have to travel through, therefore setting up the mood perfectly. The sound design is great, as are the sets, the costumes, and the Oscar-nominated makeup (as much as I love Rick Baker, this movie deserved the award). More filmmakers and studios should learn from Weir example and not give a ton of money to just anyone that promises a movie that will blow up stuff real good.

Thanks to its engaging stories, great performances, and perfectly crafted production The Way Back is one of the best movies of 2010. It’s a shame that no major studio was brave enough to release it and it truly deserved to be seen by a wider audience. Do yourself a favor and check it out. It is a grueling experience, but it is completely worth it.

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