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Non-Review Review: The Way Back

The Way Back is an impressive technical accomplishment. Peter Weir has repeatedly demonstrated that he really is one of the very best directors working today, and that he’s a deft hand at establishing mood and atmosphere. The Way Back, the story of a prison escape from the coldest depths of Siberia, is packed with beautiful vistas – from mountains snuggled in clouds to endless desert to icy tundras – and it’s also efficient and effective. However, it seems to spend so much time on the scenery that it almost forgets about the characters.

They got snow where else to go...

In a way, the simplicity of the characters seems intentional. After all, as one character observes, these are men who have spent years in a Siberian prison. They’ve learned to survive by keeping to themselves. And we do learn various bits and pieces about each character involved, mostly through a newly arrived member of the party, but it’s delivered as awkward and convenient exposition rather than smooth characterisation. It doesn’t flow organically. Although the characters all conform to “prison escape movie” archetypes (there’s the older voice of reason (who is also the cold one), the idealist, and the actual criminal), none of them are really drawn in particular detail by script.

Indeed, the use of archetypes gives the film a sort of a broad ethereal quality. The lead character claims to be motivated by a sense of responsibility and love, seeking to make the journey home to forgive somebody he claims can’t forgive themselves. It’s very sweet, but it’s also relatively generic. Although some of the characters share their plans for what they want to do when they finish their journey, the movie itself only shows us the fate of the lead. There isn’t even a little note of text at the end of this true story to tell us the fates of anyone else. You might argue that is because the lead character is the focal point of the movie, but one very important supporting cast member branches off from the group literally just before the ending, and we never discover his fate or his plans. Indeed, we never really find out what that character’s living for – save to “spite” his captors, which is fairly shallow.

Farr-ell left to go...

Still, the movie tries to offset this problem by bringing in a superb cast. I’ve never really seen the appeal of Jim Sturges, but he’s efficient enough here. Ed Harris, on the other hand, is very good as the prison’s token American. Harris has demonstrated, time and time again, that he’s an actor who can work wonders with a relative light script, and he does a good job here. Mark Strong has a supporting role as a former actor exiled to Siberia. I’m fond of Strong, and it seems rare these days to see him in the role of a good guy. Colin Farrell continues to rebuild his career through a prolonged process of appearing in small but credible roles. He does good work with the material he’s given. Saoirse Ronan is a solid as ever, and continues to be one to watch.

More than the cast though, Weir is just a really formidable director. I honestly can’t imagine a director better suited to this film than Weir, who handles the epic scale of the journey really well. He has a keen eye for beauty, as reflected in the way his shots are composed, making the most of the scenery provided to offer a magical backdrop to this harrowing tale. The production design on the film is certainly well-crafted, and the locations scouts deserve a great deal of praise – everything about the film seems authentic, and it genuinely creates a sense of an incredibly vast world that our characters must traverse.

Life on the ledge...

The film was produced by National Geographic, and I can see why the company made a good choice. The landscape shots are absolutely wonderful, and it does seem like the characters are almost passing through different worlds on their trip. The shots never seem cheap and exploitive (there’s never any risk of a character falling from a ledge, for example), but Weir doesn’t need such tricks to keep his audience watching. The film is stately and exquisite. At one point, one of the escapees refers to their trip as a “pilgrimage”, and perhaps that’s apt. Despite the harsh nature of some of their trip, the group do manage something truly special. It’s a compliment to Weir that his film can capture the epic scale on film.

If I were to make a minor complaint, though, the opening title card sort of gives the game away (perhaps with one small twist). It explains how many men survive the trip, and where they end up. I understand it’s based on a true story, but it does undermine the film a bit. Not least because my mother spent the entire movie dreading what was bound to happen to Saoirse Ronan’s character, and counting down the surviving members of the party. I know Weir probably wanted to be up front with his audience, but it does lead them to sit there and count the number of people on-screen at each stop. The cards would have been just as effective at the end of the film, putting everything we’d seen in perspective. But it’s a minor complaint.

Can they stick it?

The Way Back is a nice journey movie. It’s not spectacular, as the characters aren’t well drawn enough to stand out. Instead, it seems the film is more preoccupied with the terrain than those who pass through it. Still, Weir is a talented director, the film flows surprisingly well despite its flaws, and the settings are absolutely stunning. It’s not a bad choice.

4 Responses

  1. I was disappointed to see that supporting character leave the group so early in the movie. His presence added tension but after that, it was too straightforward and overlong. I liked the movie but it had something missing.

    • It’s strange. The two supporting characters that leave early are the two most interesting to be honest. No offence to Ed Harris, but “the enigmatic one” only really sparks interest if he has somebody to play against.

  2. Also liked this, reminded me of an old-fashioned film you’d see on TV at Christmas. Thought the end was a bit blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but still a decent story. Giving away the start was also a bit daft…

    • That’s actually a really good comparison. I think it’s perfect Christmas fodder, crowd pleasing without being in anyway controversial. And that’s not an insult.

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