The Way Back (2010) Is Long
“Inspired by true events,” what do those words inspire in you? Fear? Trembling? Anticipation? Cynicism? Ennui? There are so many “inspired by true events” and "based on a true story" films, and they run the gamut from total fiction, to fact-tinged dramatizations, to faithful re-enactments. Oh, if there were only more faithful re-enactments.
Director Peter Weir’s The Way Back is the retelling of the story of seven escapees from a Siberian gulag, nearly all political prisoners, who attempt to walk 4500 miles to freedom in India (or as FCE observed The Great Escape meets Papillon meets Dr. Zhivago). At over two hours, it’s a long walk. Peter Weir has made a number of excellent films that are quite deliberately paced, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave being two of the most memorable.
The Way Back is a visual feast, whether the cameras are focused on a Soviet Gulag, vast expanses of desert, or snowy mountains. Long shots emphasize the desolation of the escapees as they trek across forbidding landscapes. The things that would be most important to us are emphasized: the lack of food, the scarcity of water, the desert heat, exhaustion, despair, physical suffering.
133 minutes is not an inordinate amount of time to tell a good story, and The Way Back is a very good story. However, it’s a little weak on character development. Yes, we care about the characters, but we don’t care that much about all of them because they are so vaguely defined that we forget which is which. It is not until a teenage runaway, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), joins the group that the audience sees a more personal side of the escapees, learning more about them than just what got them sent to the gulag.
The cast, including Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Gustaf Skarsgard, and Mark Strong, effectively portrays the anguish, hardship, hope, and suffering the group experiences as slowly their number lessens. The Way Back was inspired by the book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (itself questionably “true”) by Slavomir Rawicz, and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray April 19, 2011.