Peter Weir’s The Way Back is an uncharacteristically knock-kneed adaptation of Slavomir Rawicz’s novel The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke do everything they can to spell out the grueling stakes their characters, Russian POWs fleeing from a Siberian prison camp, face during their insane transnational journey. This doesn’t lend the film the heft that Weir strives for, but rather overburdens a frequently dazzling tale of survival with bulky expository dialogue. It seems like the consummately ambitious Weir has finally bitten off more than he could chew.
Weir’s talky WWII drama centers on a rag-tag group of prisoners from various backgrounds. Their crimes range from relatively innocent political reasons, like an actor (Mark Strong) who stars in a film that doesn’t vilify capitalism, to more hardened career criminals (Colin Farrell), who paradoxically weren’t treated as harshly at the prison camps as the political prisoners were. Firm in the knowledge that they can’t survive for long in the Siberian camps, an all-star cast of refugees breaks out and trudges through snow and across the desert for their lives.
While this is going on, they frequently stop to talk about how they’re bonding with each other instead of just bonding with each other, to tell us what they’re thinking, even to discuss the harsh elements that immediately threaten them. For instance, when they cross over into China from Russia, they see an abandoned wooden arch that depicts Chiang Kai-shek and Joseph Stalin side by side. Ed Harris’s withdrawn American unnecessarily murmurs, “This changes everything,” and Saoirse Ronan’s plucky Russian adds, “There’s nowhere to hide.” It gets to the point where you can’t help but laugh when Ronan’s character asks Harris’s why nobody is talking to each other more. He replies, in earnest ignorance of the considerable dialogue he’s already been saddled with, “In the camps, you learn to say as little as possible.” If only.
Weir’s drama does so much to externally establish the gravity of his survivors’ drama that he only winds up distracting from his film’s dazzling hyper-real nature photography. Russell Boyd’s immersive cinematography is extraordinary, but his images rarely get to speak for themselves. The characters’ despondent body language should be their most evocative reactions to their unrelenting natural settings. But save for the film’s relatively mute third act, there’s just much too much chatter throughout The Way Back for it to live up to its promise as a film about people whose most incredible accomplishment was simply staying alive.
Image Entertainment's DVD release preserves the film's anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, but the picture quality wavers between very crisp and being a little unfocussed. The surround mix shortchanges the dialogue, which sounds flat when juxtaposed with how nicely layered the background noises and Bukrhard van Dallwitz's original score sound on the DVD.
There are no special features on Image Entertainment's release beyond a surprisingly informative featurette during which Peter Weir and the cast discuss the history behind the film. Some of what they learned by way of researching for the film is a lot more interesting than the film itself, like when Colin Farrell gives a quick rundown on the meanings of the tattoos his character has all over his body.
The Way Back falls short of its promise, but it's especially disappointing coming from the director of such gutsy films as Fearless and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.