It’s true: Peter Weir hasn’t made a bad film. From his early lesser known triumphs that include perplexing car carnage horror debut The Cars that Ate Paris and claustrophobic thriller The Plummer, through to the award winning likes of Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously and Witness and on to more recent modern classics including Dead Poet’s Society and The Truman Show this is a director, not unlike David Cronenberg, who is incapable of churning out a disaster. Even his financial film failings (The Mosquito Coast and Fearless) are intelligent instantly likable affairs. So it’s fare to say when walking into a Weir film one’s expectations are lifted above the norm.
The Way Back, Weir’s first film in seven years, is based on the audacious (but probably fictitious) account of the Russian prison escape and subsequent 4,500 trek – from Siberia via the Gobi desert to India – by seven Polish/American prisoners in 1940. With punishing snow/desert terrain the mission appears doomed from the start, however these men ultimately seek freedom and would rather die attempting it than perish as prisoners of Stalin. One thing The Way Back doesn’t lack is stamina.
And true to form Weir doesn’t disappoint. He invests time in allowing us to get to know his characters, shows archetypal skill in weaving out well-rounded performances – of which particular merit must go to a never better Colin Farrell as a gutsy sneaky prisoner type – layers his story with humour and pathos, directs with stylish, confident flare and finally brings us the jaw-dropping spectacle we yearn from such a survival-against-the-odds yarn. To top this there’s a marvellously moving score by Burkhard Dallwitz which notches the film up to near Leanesque levels of epic indulgence. But regrettably there’s something curiously amiss.
And it took me a little while to realise the problem was ultimately that of emotional detachment. For some strange reason The Way Back lacks the emotional element that is essential for this kind of story. It’s not that the characters are particularly clichéd – though we have the weathered veteran type in Ed Harris‘ American emigrant and the young arrogant type in Jim Sturgess operative leader – or that there’s a lack of girl power to keep things grounded – Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan provides that necessity – but when characters begin to lag behind and die it’s more of a ‘oh!’ than a ‘oh no!’ It’s a pity as Weir really does paint the gruelling oppression with gutsy realism. We shudder as we see the group experience freezing conditions, we boil up as they burn and blister across deadly desert plains, we rejoice when they briefly find water and then wince when we glimpse at their terribly worn feet and elongated toe-nails. But unfortunately we are not moved enough and after a while their trek across the Gobe becomes a trifle tiresome and, akin to the doom-ridden characters, we just want it to all be over.
While Weir’s film does justice to a compelling story there’s little in the way of great Gallipoli style audience to character connection. Consequently The Way Back is a journey you rather wouldn’t have taken. However there’s still much to admire, including excellent chemistry from an impressive cast, a super uplifting score which will pleasingly play in your head for hours after, miles upon miles of eye-catching scenery and superb direction from Australia’s finest auteur.
The Way Back is released on Dec. 26th in the U.K. and Dec 29th in the U.S.