THE WAY BACK
Director: Peter Weir
Screenwriters: Peter Weir and Keith Clarke based on the novel The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz
Runtime: 133 mins.
Australian release date: 24 February 2011
Peter Weir has returned to the silver screen after a seven year absence with his latest film, The Way Back. It has been described as a ‘harrowing epic’ and, in this case, it is indeed an epic of mammoth proportions - a small group of men escape from a Siberian prison camp in the middle of winter and trek across Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, a distance of thousands of miles, arriving in India three months later. It is set in the late 1930s, at a time when Stalin was in power in the Soviet Union, imprisoning anyone who he thought to be opposed to his iron-fisted rule; a time of real paranoia on all sides.
Along the way the escapees are hammered by the elements and their spirits are put to the test. Weir once again explores the motivation and behaviour of his characters, who are trying to survive in isolated and unfamiliar situations. They are a varied lot, including ‘Mister’ Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer, Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian criminal who is thoroughly brainwashed and sports a tattoo of both Stalin and Lenin on his chest, and Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole who has been wrongly accused of spying and who is determined to get back to his wife to forgive her for ‘betraying’ him. Their motley group is joined en route by Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a Polish teenager who is also on the road to freedom.
The relationship between Irena and the men is handled with great sensitivity; she is treated as one of them, almost adopted by them, and at no time do they lust after her, which would have been de rigueur in many films of this nature. ‘Mister’ Smith takes her under his wing after she proves her mettle by racing across a frozen river, knowing that she can’t swim and thus demonstrating how she is able to look after herself.
Weir’s script is based on the novel The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, which was ghost-written by Ronald Downing based on conversations he’d had with Slavomir Rawicz. It turns out that the story is not really Rawicz’s, but it doesn’t really matter as, in the end, Weir is more interested in exploring the act of survival, not the authenticity of the characters themselves. It covers a time in history where there would have been many stories of this nature and they make for a great cinematic experience.
Long-term Weir collaborator, Russell Boyd’s cinematography is nothing short of spectacular; he captures the bleak, harsh conditions perfectly. There are times watching this epic that you want to get under a blanket away from the cold. Burkhard Dallwitz’s score is also perfectly pitched and it’s worth sitting through his music over credits to reflect on the journey and wind down from the experience. Weir is one of the best and The Way Back marks his welcome return to the cinema. Go see it, but take a jumper!