If Peter Weir's previous film, Master and Commander made the audience feel like it was on the ocean waters in a real nineteenth century war ship, his new film, The Way Back, about a trek from a Russian gulag to India, makes you feel like you have walked every kilometre of the trip. This is probably one of the reasons that some members of the audience have been disappointed and, find this often powerful film, somewhat tedious, Also,the film sometimes defies usual expectations and conventions in its storytelling, a not unusual feature of Weir's films.
The film starts with the invasion of Poland in 1939 by both the Germans and the Russians, and Januczs is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag after he is accused of belittling Stalin and of being a spy.
In the camp there are not only political prisoners, but men convicted of criminal offences, and with members of both these groups he eventually seizes the opportunity in the midst of a blizzard to make his escape. Most of the film after the first half hour deals with the six escapees long trek from Siberia to Mongolia across the Gobi Desert to India, and how some of then survive.
At the centre of the film is landscape, blizzards, mountainous terrains, desert,dust storms, and other hazards of nature. Russell Boyd's photography is the star of the film, and the landscape often dwarfs the performances of the actors . Nature is also the principal villain in the film, and likely to bring about the death of anyone of the characters at any moment. It is one of the strengths of the film, that despite the ensemble of actors including the well known faces of Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, the audience is never sure who will manage to survive and who will not. If you are not fond of extreme long shots of characters stretched out along the horizon being physically challenged by the vastness of the landscape,then this is a film best avoided.
While some of the film's characters stay undeveloped the film is full of many compelling little details of interaction between the characters that bring them to life. In the camp the enigmatic 'Smith '( Ed Harris) sums up Janucsz potential as an escapee by saying,” I need you for your weakness. Your kindness. I might need you to carry me sometime” Also one prisoner barters with the more violent prisoners with his skill at creating sketches of naked women. Starving men drive away a pack of wolves from the carcass of a dead animal, only to tear the meat from the body like wolves themselves. It is details such as these that allows the film to break away from the usual cliches of escape from prison movies.
Furthermore, the plot does not follow the usual conventions of characterisation for this type of film. A girl who joins the party in the midst of the journey, does not automatically become an object of lust for any of the men, but in the words of one of the other characters is just another mouth to be fed. Before the end of the film where one of the survivors is reunited with his wife, we get a montage of over fifty years of history in Europe suggesting that time marches on regardless. It is unusual features of the film's structure such as this, that those expecting the usual rugged action film seem to find irritating.
Given Weir's directorial reputation, it was remarkable that there was so little advance publicity for the film's release. I was at lost to explain this until I saw National Geographic had its logo on the beginning of the film. While National Geographic make great documentaries, I was not aware that they made many fictional feature films. It would appear not to have been financed in the usual way, not as a production of one of the major studios. and with money from Australia and Eastern Europe, with principal location work in Bulgaria,Morocco and India.
The lack of input from any of the major studios may account for the erratic nature of some of the marketimg, and if the same approach was taken in USA then no wonder it was not a great success at the box office. In any case,it would appear to be a hard sell in some respects with its grim realism, unglamorous cast, no sex or romance, or monsters, or fast and furious car chases. In addition,with no fast editing, or melodramatic music on the sound track, and no 3D, it would probably seem old fashioned film making to some. If that is the case, you have been warned, stay at home and play with your X box.