So, a Polish guy walks into a Soviet POW camp in the middle of the Siberian wilderness…
You’ve probably heard that one before.
After being interrogated for some unknown amount of time, a Polish man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) refuses to cooperate with some Soviet soldiers. Thus, he is convicted of spying on the Soviet Union and sent to a POW camp in Siberia. Once inside, Janusz immediately sets his mind to escaping from this gulag.
There’s one snag, though: the camp is in the middle of nowhere, and they don’t have a map. Escaping the camp is relatively easy, though; the fence is not keeping the POWs imprisoned. The unforgiving wilderness surrounding them is the true barrier from their liberation. Yet, against the odds, a group of wayfaring POWs begins a 4,000-mile trek toward India and freedom.
Director Peter Weir, the man who brought us Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, dazzles on the silver screen after a seven-year hiatus.
The cinematography helps quite a bit in that department. Filming across Bulgaria, Morocco and India, we witness a variety of beautiful, treacherous landscapes. There are no sweeping overhead shots, which supplies us with the same viewpoint as the escapees. We see what they do, placing us right with them – and it works extremely well.
Their daunting journey across the desert, for instance, includes one scene where the characters are attempting to climb a sand dune. They cannot see overtop of it, and neither can we. But what is on the other side? More desert? Water? A small ounce of hope? While there is not a major sense of fear or anticipation for what will happen next, this in-the-moment cinematography does what it can for the aesthetics of the film.
But looks aren’t everything.
When creating more or less flat characters, it is always difficult to make moviegoers care about the people onscreen. With the exception of two characters, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and Valka (Colin Farrell), everyone else blended together making it hard to differentiate between them. Smith and Valka’s characters were not flushed out as much as they should have been, but they were unique and memorable.
Valka is a hardened Russian criminal covered in tattoos, and always wielding his trusted knife. Farrell’s performance and the way he keeps tossing up his knife and catching it is practically unforgettable. While he may be dangerous and a little nuts, his relationship with his Motherland and his leader, Janusz, is rather remarkable. Valka has killed people for the smallest of reasons, but he wants to watch over Janusz like a bodyguard – or as Valka put it, a wolf. It may seem like nothing, but I found the character quite beautiful.
The acting from these individuals is superb. As mentioned earlier, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Mark Strong, given only a few scenes, present acting at its very best. The young actress, Saoirse Ronan, playing Irena, a runaway Polish teenager, is a delight to watch as well.
Jim Sturgess, playing the lead, gave me hope for a quality film. He’s an extremely talented actor, and I have yet to be disappointed by the films in which I have seen him. While Sturgess did his best with what he had, it was not enough to push the movie as far as it needed to go.
The main problem is the lack of emotion we should be feeling for these characters. Maybe that has to do with the source material, Slawomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk. Does Rawicz supply enough information about the individuals who supposedly went on this arduous journey? Did he even go on this walk? The verity of the author’s work is still under debate, which is why Peter Weir worked on the screenplay from a fictive standpoint.
With that notion in mind, Weir could have taken liberties that are more creative and developed something even more spectacular. Almost every adaptation of a “true story” usually does. The main character, Janusz, does not share the same name as the book’s author.
Hell, this stuff may not have even happened! So, why not embellish certain things?
Add some more character development, for instance. I didn’t care about most of the characters, mainly because I didn’t know much about any of them. We’re given minute details, usually one personal, defining, historical fact the men told one another (most of the time indirectly). I still have no idea what many of their names are. There was Mr. Smith and Valka, but that’s all I’ve got.
I began referring to these individuals by what defining characteristic we were told or shown about them. The Actor, the Girl, the Cook, the Man With Night Blindness, the Artist and the Former Priest. That can be okay in a shorter work, but we’re taking an epic, arduous, 4,000-mile journey with these characters. I want to invest my time and attention into becoming more acquainted with them, but I find the task difficult.
(One cool, intriguing fact I learned about from this film is nyctalopia, or night blindness. This is the inability to see in lower lighting, especially during the night. The crazy thing is they can see just fine in the daytime. The POWs suffering from severe malnutrition generally come down with this illness. I had never heard of the condition before seeing this film, but now I can’t get the idea of it out of my head.)
While visually stunning and well acted, The Way Back fails to supply the audience with much of the emotional side to this tale. This is what happens with plot-driven narratives: it should be a story about the characters (there are certainly plenty of them), but, instead, it’s a tale about the journey. Overall, it was an enjoyable film, but lacks the human emotion needed to hoist it to the same level as Weir’s past works.
3 ½ out of 5 stars