The Way Back

The Way Back

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Ed Harris, Jim Sturgress, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong & Saoirse Ronan


by Sean Driver

The Way Back is Peter Weir’s most recent motion picture since 2003’s Master and Commander. Adapted in collaboration with Keith Clarke from Slavomir Rawicz’s memoir, A Long Walk Home, the film follows Jim Sturgress’ character from arrest and incarceration in a Siberian Soviet gulag to his escape and journey home. Furthormore the film’s historical accuracy (overseen by Pulitzer prize winning Gulag historian Anne Applebaum) keeps the period detail exact making the audience believe the spectacle.

This is a journey film and Christmas has for the last ten years been therelease date of many inspiring and uplifting (d)treck tales. Think Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. This bears more affinity with them than something like The Road. The values in the film ultimately make it very middle of the road; the Great Escape meets the Wizard of Oz.

As a festive journey film it comes with all the genre trappings; mind harrowing landscapes with miniscule human figures, historic back drops, allegory, group psychology and typological characters. We have the leading leaden man (Sturgress), the pragmatic older American engineer (grizzled Ed Harris), the cowardly Lion (Mark Strong), the Russian tough cookie (Colin Farrell), the artist, the baker alas there is no candlestick maker but there are two beautiful children,one being Polish street cailin Soirse Ronan. It’s all here almost pre-packaged for the inspiring uplift. If trying to ‘inspiring’ is cynical, then how cynical is it to condemn a film-maker’s attempt?

The film succeeds on several levels, the day lit sequences in the gulag with timber logging, and earth mining contrast with the narrow focused night sequences make a revealing juxtaposition highlighting the character, the institutions and the natural landscape. The gulag is the strongest part of the film, Weir captures the ferocity, the debasement of humanity, urka lore and inherent gruelty camp life creates. It delights the eyes and repels the conscience. The only objection I have with the film is that it claims to show the best and the worst of humanity, murder and death abound but shit, piss, rape or sex are off limits. You could say it “censitizes” itself.

The film demands much of its actors, set designers, director of photography and crew members but it doesn’t really ask too much from the audient. Its political message is delivered from one generation to the other. Ed Harris teaching Saoirse Ronan that ‘we’ve had enough of lies’. Lies being what made Stalinism, gulags and cruelty possible. The film reaches beyond itself in its conclusion seeing itself as an allegory for emerging Polish nationalism during the Cold War. When a film that has offered a visual feast falls back on cliché and news footage offset with a march beat one knows it’s playing it safe, it becomes less a film and more a piece of revisionist storytelling. Acting commendations go to Saoirse Ronan who holds the screen impeccably alongside Ed Harris; and Mark Strong who appears displaying again how versatile and commanding a presence he is.

By Sean Driver

The trailer for “The Way Back”