The ever brilliant writer/director, Peter Weir, best known for Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Year of Living Dangerously, has delivered a visually stunning epic detailing the amazing and prolific story of several individuals journeying against insurmountable odds to flee the confines of a Siberian prison camp by traveling across 4,000 miles of baron winter and scorching desert to reach their ultimate freedom in India.
Not since Forrest Gump, the title character of the 1994 film of the same name, made his lovelorn run across America, have we seen such a long and arduous journey. However, by contrast to the rich character development and emotional tenacity of Forrest Gump, The Way Back falls significantly short, thus making this film based on Slavomir Rawicz’s controversial, but inspiring bestseller “The Long Walk” feel like just that.
The story, set in pre World War II Eastern Europe, follows a group of prisoners as they plot and later carry out a plan to escape the oppression and brutalization of internment camp. Lead by Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a young man imprisoned by the Russians for his alleged spy activities and negative opinions of then Russian leader, Joseph Stalin, this diverse group, including “Mr. Smith” (Ed Harris), an American, Valka (Colin Farrell) a murderous Russian, and Irene (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl whom they find along the way, battle the elements on their vigorous voyage to freedom. The group’s sojourn finds them exhausted and malnourished, trying desperately to make their way through the merciless winter frost, into the Gobi Desert, down to the foothills of the Himalayas, with nothing more than a few meager rations and the shirts on their backs, and all the while struggling to reach their physical destination of India and metaphoric destination of political liberation. While the film centers around efforts to endure and survive this dramatic epic, it defies all odds merely by somehow failing to possess more than a stitch of drama.
Writer, David Seidler, and director, Tom Hooper, artfully pieced together the elegant tale of King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stutter in order to deliver an affecting speech to the people of Great Britain, in The King’s Speech. They cleverly employed both humor and palatable drama to portray King George VI (Colin Firth) and his speech coach (Geoffrey Rush) facing small setbacks and reaching giant victories, all captured against the thrillingly interesting and accurate historical backdrop of the British Royal Monarchy during pre-World War II. By Tom Hooper managing to make such a captivating and emotionally gripping story out of a stutter problem, one is left to wonder how The Way Back, set in the same time period, fails to reach the same engaging dramatic heights given its undoubtedly higher stakes and more challenging obstacles.
The film gives only a surface glance at the characters instead of delving deep into their lives and back stories, which would have significantly enriched their motivations for attempting this incredible journey and enhanced our emotional investment in seeing them reach their goals. While Colin Farrell plays his role of heartless criminal masterfully, delivering icy glares that cut through you as deeply as the cold of the beautifully photographed Siberian tundra would, it is merely the tip to the iceberg of story and characterization that is left untouched beneath the surface of this film. Ed Harris’ stellar performance as the elder of the group, who risks his life for the chance of spending his remaining days living as a free man, stands out amongst the relatively flat deliveries of his fellow cast mates. But even Ed Harris rising to the challenge of bringing drama to the dry-as-the-desert story of the film, could not rescue it from its destiny of emotional inaccessibility and overall lackluster sensibility.
This harrowing tale of triumph over adversity, while breathtakingly filmed, leaves much to be desired. It is a poignant tale of an incredible trek, but its cursory storytelling and lack of details make it the cinematic realization of all that is believed to be true of Angelina Jolie – beautiful, but vapid.