The Way Back (2011)
Directed by: Peter Weir Screenwriter: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hr 15 min Inspired by: Slavomir Rawicz’s 1955 book ‘The Long Walk.’
Studio: Exclusive Media Group, Nat. Geographic Entertainment, Imagination Abu Dhabi
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, Saoirse Ronan
In The Way Back, a Polish man named Janusz is sent to a Russian Gulag in Siberia. To follow along and appreciate this film you must understand some things about history. In late 1939 Hitler invaded Poland from the West, and Stalin invaded from the East. As such, Poland becomes a communist state under Russia. A person could find themselves imprisoned or dead for many reasons at the time under their control.
In the first few minutes, you understand this film’s tone through dialogue and the musical score. The gravity of the prisoner’s plight is further compounded by the sweeping displays of the frigid, barren, and enormous landscape around them.
The prison is cramped and filthy. Looking at this replica of one of history’s most infamous prison types, it is obvious there is a small chance most live to see freedom again. Desperation, isolation, depravity, and starvation are on full display with minimal setup required. So, of course, someone will attempt to break out. In this story, several men do. Attempting the impossible, to make it to India, 4,000 miles away. Outside communist rule.
This movie is inspired by a 1955 book by Slavomir Rawicz, which was later disputed as a factual account. Or disputed as being actual events Rawicz himself participated in. Never the less the idea of the story and what it represents is something to consider. If a person could escape such a place, why wouldn’t they, if the alternative is to die in a place like a Russian Gulag?
As you can tell from the movie’s trailer, some do escape. That’s the inciting incident, if you will that creates the purpose for the narrative. A script’s content is vital to how a film will shape up, but this is a visual account of a journey more than a story. While each of the actors portrays their parts with believability, they are a motley crew with little development—even Janusz’s (Sturgess) character, which has slightly more than the others. And yet, the humanity of the respective characters shines through. Since each role is skillfully portrayed, you get a view into these people in a way that draws you in.
There are some unanswered questions in creating a prison escape story that traverses some of the world’s most hostile terrains. How is it there wasn’t more infighting? Would the path they took really be so devoid of other people? If you were locked up for years, no woman in sight, you think one of them would make a comment about them. So, when they come across a young girl, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), on their journey, no one does. As odd as that can seem to many, I think it also represents that many people sent to Gulag’s were not criminals. Therefore, not the type of depraved people who would otherwise take advantage of such an encounter.
The transition from one scene to another believably carries the viewer from one point to the next, never losing the film’s pace. The film’s settings are as much a character as the actors themselves or the villain or problem to resolve. Using these aspects of nature for the cast to interact or deal with is what moves the plot along. To make it past blizzards, wildlife, mountains, and the desert to freedom. The journey is the story.
Nature is such a vital component to director Peter Weir’s process that it’s on location, not on some green screen in some building. This is important for two main reasons; one, it creates a gracious visual for the viewer. It lets them appreciate the scale of what these individuals are dealing with. Second, to go along with that is it’s essential for the actors. Which elicits a genuine response, acting in fake snow or real snow? Trekking through a lot filled with sand or actually scaling it under the hot sun?
Apart from the desire to be free, the only component that really tethers this group together is respect for others’ desire to have a life again. That by working together, not individually, will they have a greater chance at success. Somehow that’s enough. It’s enough for them and for the viewer to stay until the story’s conclusion.
Some viewers may not make it to the end of this film, but it shows itself for the type of movie it is upfront. A minor cerebral nudger. A film that makes you wonder if you, the viewer, could do what the group in this film did. Because let’s face it, the Gulags were real. The Way Back is a slice into a historical era from a rare perspective, true story or not. Either way, it is worth a place on your watch list.
—a pen lady