For those of us fed up to the teeth with “indie film,” which is to say whiny 20-somethings navel-gazing at their terminal ennui, Peter Weir’s The Way Back is a breath of fresh air. Here we have an independent film that’s actually about something, that actually has production values and a screenplay that wasn’t made up as the film went along. It probably helps that Peter Weir is at the helm—and it’s a Peter Weir who seems much more himself than he did with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World back in 2003, which felt strictly professional, this feels like a far more personal work. And while it’s not a perfect film by any means, it’s far and away the best thing to hit town since the Christmas rush.
The Way Back is based on a book called The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz—a supposed factual memoir, the veracity of which has been much called into question. I’m not sure if that matters in terms of the quality of the film, but since the film is marketed as “fact-based” in an effort to cash in on the mystifying mania for true stories, it should be addressed in passing. Actually, the whole fact-based aspect is probably not in the film’s favor.
Certainly, choosing an introduction which informs us early on that “three men” walked into India was a seriously questionable move in that it tells us too much about the outcome. While it actually isn’t quite as informative as it seems, the “three men” definitely tells us that Irena (Saoirse Ronana) will not be with us by the final reel. That may be partly deliberate on Weir’s part, since he clearly isn’t out for tragedy. Rather, The Way Back is meant to be a film about the indomitable nature of the human spirit. It does, however, blunt some of the emotional impact, as well as put the viewer into the mindset of waiting to see who buys it next.
The film begins in 1939 with Janusz (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe) being railroaded—with the help of obviously torture-derived statements by his wife (Sally Edwards)—by the authorities in Soviet-occupied Poland into a 20-year sentence in a Siberian labor camp for espionage. Once in Siberia and the camp, Janusz quickly learns just what he’s in for. The American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) is quick to advise him that “kindness can get you killed,” and it’s not long before it becomes obvious that the only hope for survival is escape. The odds against a successful escape, however, are astronomical—even more so than Janusz and fellow escapees realize, since they’ve been cut off from the world and don’t realize that a 4,000-mile trek lies ahead of them in their quest for freedom.
The bulk of the film then details their grueling and perilous journey—and this could have been one dreary journey. Amazingly—thanks in no small part to Harris, Sturgess, Colin Farrell and Ronan—Weir’s film is never dreary and always compelling. Some critics have remarked that Ed Harris is at his most Ed Harris, but that’s what Harris does best and does most memorably. To complain is to miss the point—and not to realize that bits like Mr. Smith remarking on Janusz’s weakness of kindness and concluding that he’s relying on that weakness, since he expects Janusz to carry him if he can’t make it on his own, only work because it’s Ed Harris. Also, it takes Harris to keep the business of thawing toward the orphan girl (Ronan), who joins them, from being cloying.
Actually, the entire cast is good and the film is adept at having them reveal themselves and their individual motivations little by little along the way. This is particularly true of Sturgess’ Janusz, whose determination—which we finally realize we’ve been glimpsing in a seemingly unrelated recurring scene—turns out to be significant for a heartbreakingly simple reason. It works simply because we don’t know it till fairly late in the film. It takes a filmmaker of Weir’s ability and an actor of Sturgess’ caliber to pull it off, though.
It isn’t a perfect film. It’s at its best as an uplifting story of the human spirit and as a solidly crafted adventure yarn. It’s at its weakest as a simplistic comment on communism, though the film wisely stays out of the political realm most of time, except in broad strokes about characters caught up in governments and world events that—much like the trek itself—are simply too vast to comprehend. The biggest problem, however, is our foreknowledge. It’s not so much that only three men will walk into India, but that it’s impossible not to tick off the locations as they appear, so that we keep knowing the inevitable is coming long before the characters do. But this is almost nitpicking in a film this surprisingly rich and compelling. Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language.