Star Rating: 3/5
Travelling can often be long and boring, regardless of whether it is on a bus down the road or on an aeroplane across the world. Alas, despite one heck of a trek, one feels much the same whilst sitting through The Way Back.
The film is based on true events as described in the book, The Long Walk, by Slawomir Rawicz. (The book, however, has recently been proven to be a work of fiction.) The story centres on six men, who escaped from a Siberian gulag in the winter of 1940 and made their way south to India on foot. The distance alone sounds daunting to even the most determined of souls. The inhospitable terrain and harsh weather conditions make the task Herculean, if not outright impossible.
The director, Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show, Gallipoli) certainly captures the difficulties the heroes face. From the bitingly cold, white desert of Siberia to the scorching heat of the Mongolian/Chinese one, the struggle to keep on going is vividly portrayed. The lack of food and water is a constant problem. Hunger, thirst, cold and skin problems are a constant reminder of the fragility of mankind against unforgiving mother-nature.
Yet, throughout the movie, one wonders what the goals of the main characters are. Once they have escaped, then what? One gets the impression that escaping from the gulag is the end in and of itself; which, of course, it cannot be.
An even greater travesty for The Way Back is that, whilst the acting is generally good, the key characters do not develop. Worse, Weir fails to make us empathise with the heroes. With the exceptions of the American ‘Mister’ Smith (Ed Harris – A Beautiful Mind, A History of Violence), the criminal Valka (Colin Farrell – Phone Booth, Miami Vice, SWAT), and Irena (Saoirse Ronan – Atonement, The Lovely Bones) for being a woman; the other characters do not stand out: Janusz (Jim Sturgess – Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, 21, One Day), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean – 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, The Paper will be Blue), Zoran (Dragos Bucur – Tuesday After Christmas, The Godmother) and Andrei (Dejan Angelov – Scorpius Gigantus, Until Death) all seem to merge into the same kind-hearted character. Whilst benevolence in such situations is to be admired, it makes it hard to differentiate them; especially as they all look the same dirty, scraggy outlaws.
The accents are also disappointing. Apart from with Colin Farrell, there is little consistency in the actors’ Slavic accents. (Ed Harris uses his American accent throughout the film so is exempt from criticism.) For some of the time, their accents are surprisingly good. But just as one starts to believe that they could actually be Polish or Russian (depending upon where they claim to be from in the vast USSR), out pops their real accents to undo it all. One would have thought that an experienced director, like Weir, would have noticed this during filming. Evidently not.
Another noticeable thing about the main characters is that none of them make an attempt to violate Irena. This is more than a tad surprising considering that some of these men had been in the gulags for years, and so would not have had the company of a woman for equally as long. Also, bearing in mind the Red Army’s behaviour in Eastern Europe in the latter part of World War II, the characters’ disinterest in Irena appears wholly inaccurate within the historical context. (Not that I am condoning rape amongst former gulag prisoners, of course.)
One thing the film gets right, historically, is the way the gulags were run. Hardened criminals were virtually given carte blanche to terrorise other inmates; especially if they were political prisoners. In addition, the topography throughout the movie, which the National Geographic channel helped to choose, is wonderful.
However, whilst one can appreciate picturesque landscapes, a film that lasts more than two hours has to give its audience more to enjoy than mere terrain. Although The Way Back had to be long to ensure the audience grasps the extent of the distance the main characters walked; not enough happens to them to sustain the viewers’ interest and concentration. Ironically, one comes out of this film thinking that, despite witnessing a journey from Siberia to India, they had not seen much.