THE WAY BACK Movie Review
Peter Weir is an amazing filmmaker. How else can you sum up the breadth and quality of movies as diverse in tone and scope as “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Witness,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Green Card,” “The Truman Show” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”? These are films of substance that are also a lot of fun to watch. Movies hailed by critics and gobbled up by hungry audiences. He has directed five different actors to Oscar-nominated performances. In short, he can do no wrong.
And then there’s THE WAY BACK.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not a bad movie. All the elements of a dramatic, epic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit film are there: the long journey, struggle against nature and man, death, and amazing cinematography (Russell Boyd) in locations we’ve never quite seen this way before. But there’s an emotional emptiness to this movie that it can be hard to pin down, and in the end it can only be considered a misstep in an otherwise stellar filmography for Weir.
It may have begun to go wrong in casting. Jim Sturgess is not the first name on anyone’s lips when “historical epic” is mentioned. After this it may be among the last names mentioned. He is fine. Okay. Adequate. Which is the problem. Epic stories require epic protagonists, actors who chew through the role and turn it into a performance of a lifetime. Sturgess just kind of… plays his part. As a person, he feels relentlessly modern, and therefore out of place in 1940s Russia. He plays Janusz, unfairly incarcerated in a Siberian gulag at the start of World War 2 after being informed on by his own wife, who was tortured to obtain a confession of misdeeds. The prison is not the walls, we are informed when he gets there, it is Siberia itself – a neverending winter wilderness full of nasty animals and even nastier locals looking for a bounty on any escaped prisoner.
There he meets the vicious Valka (Colin Farrell, who is actually very good with the exception of a lamentable, worse-than-Connery Russian accent), and the enigmatic American prisoner known only as “Mr. Smith,” played by the always fantastic Ed Harris, who provides the only real gravitas in this movie. They hatch a plan to escape with the clothes on their backs and a few scraps of bread, and plan to walk (and walk and walk and walk) four thousand miles through Siberia, Mongolia and Nepal to India, and freedom. They have the company of a few other prisoners, and along the way they pick up a stray girl (Saoirse Ronan) as well.
…and that’s pretty much the story. Some die. Some live. But mostly it’s a buttload of walking, over snow, ice, desert, rocks… more snow… and seldom during this amazing voyage are we ever really permitted to feel anything for these men and this girl. Even when they die, Weir somehow… misses our hearts in a way that is difficult to explain, except that he seems to rely on the formula that if we spend enough time with a mistreated character we’re rooting for from the beginning, put them through worse and worse hardships and then kill them off in an awful and lonely place, we should feel something. It never happens. There’s one moment when Ed Harris… almost… but no, it’s gone.
The story is based on a novel “inspired by true events” but widely regarded as complete fiction. The Way Back has the feel of something that desperately needs the cache of being based on true events, but in the end just leaves you to look at your watch and wonder when the 133 minutes are going to be over, and a mild curiosity about which characters will be around at the end. It somehow never stops feeling like a movie, never connects to the human heart, doesn’t really have any action sequences, and with the flat performance of Sturgess it just doesn’t fly. It’s not bad. It’s just not Peter Weir good.