The Way Back
Peter Weir likes to make big movies. From early works like The Last Wave to his most recent previous works, The Truman Show and Master and Commander, he’s got a taste for the large-scale. The Way Back is a beautifully grandiose addition to his filmography.
The film is based on The Long Walk, a purported 1956 memoir by Sławomir Rawicz, wherein he claims to have escaped from a Soviet Gulag camp in Siberia. This may be true, or it may be that it’s true but about someone else — one Witold Gliński has claimed to be the real original source — or most likely it may be a fabrication. Even Weir calls The Long Walk “essentially fictional”. Be that as it may, it makes for a good story.
In the middle of World War II, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a Polish prisoner, accused of sabotage and espionage by the Soviet army. On the basis of a signed statement from his wife — likely coerced — he is sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in the far eastern wilderness of Russia, about 650 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.
Conditions are, predictably, miserable, and Janusz itches to escape. After some months, he makes his break in the middle of a blizzard along with a motley crew of other prisoners, mostly political. There is Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young Pole already succumbing to malnutrition, Zoran (Dragos Bucur), a Yugoslav accountant who was arrested for taking a picture of the Kremlin, Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), a Latvian priest with a guilty conscience, Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), a Russian pastry chef who wants to be an artist, Valka (Colin Farrel), a Russian criminal trying to escape his gambling debts along with the camp, and Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer who will only give his first name as “Mister”.
Outside the camp, the terrain is forbidding, and it’s the dead of winter. On top of that, there’s a bounty for any fugitives, which will turn the local populations against them. They can’t go west through the whole of Russia, and the Russian territory extends east to the Pacific. North is obviously out of the question, and so they are left to walk all the way south. It’s hundreds of kilometers to the northern end of Lake Baikal, where they meet another young Polish escapee, Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Then they have to walk all the way along the lake, south across the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and then on to the Mongolian border.
At which point, of course, they find that Mongolia has turned communist as well, and is closely allied with Stalinist Russia. The only option is to continue: across Mongolia and China, across the Gobi desert and over the Himalayas to India. By the end, those who survive will have walked an astounding 4,000 miles since their escape with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Along the way, they face every sort of hardship. There are whiteout blizzards, blistering deserts, mosquito swarms, packs of wolves, sandstorms, and immense mountain slopes. And through it all they persevere. We watch them not only endure, but grow together; going from a loose confederacy of individuals, each out for their own survival, into something like a family.
The thing is, when Weir makes a big movie, he can’t really focus on the small scale. His excellent work in Dead Poets Society only came along with zooming way, way in. So we do get to watch the characters evolve and grow a bit, but they never really grab us. They feel more like Tomasz’ charcoal sketches than fully fleshed-out people. There are motions made towards past histories, but none of them really seem to matter as much as the journey itself. In the long run, who they were before the camp is at best tangential to how they walk their current road.
The flip side is that that road is rendered beautifully in Weir’s lens. It runs from the Siberian taiga through temperate forests, steppes and shrublands, great desert ergs, and finally over the upthrust Himalayas themselves. And this is where the support from National Geographic Films comes in: the footage is gorgeous, and dramatically expansive. For once I found myself wishing a movie had been shot in an IMAX format, to fully take advantage of these vistas. It’s going to play like a travelogue anyway, with the thin plot providing the excuse to show off this incredible range of terrain; it may as well make the most of it.
Worth it: yes, on the biggest screen you can find.
Bechdel test: fail.