he Way Back is the first film from
Australian director Peter Weir in over seven years, following on from
2003s highly-regarded Russell Crowe vehicle Master and Commander,
and stands alongside Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock
as a film which expertly and heart-breakingly documents the beauty and
harshness of (human) nature.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess, Across the
Universe, Fifty Dead Men Walking) is a Polish POW sentenced
to 20 years in a Siberian gulag after being denounced to Soviet
authorities by his wife, who has herself presumably been tortured.
There he meets American prisoner ‘Mr Smith’ (Ed Harris), a former actor
named Khabarov and a hardened Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), and
together, after an assortment of injustices and hardships would break
the wills of lesser men, the unlikely allies decide to plan their
The film is loosely based on the book
The Long Walk, which purported to tell of an inmate’s alleged escape
on foot from a Siberian gulag and his subsequent voyage to India. The
book itself was later exposed as a fake, and Weir himself has confirmed
the film is essentially a work of fiction. Nonetheless it is a
remarkably effective and tremendously authentic work, which encapsulates
life in a WWII-era internment camp in all its depravity and horror. The
incessant, all-pervasive ugliness of Stalin’s regime is also captured in
all its profound repulsiveness, as is the desperate longing for freedom
which so obsessed those sentenced to toil for decades in his grim,
soul-destroying labour camps.
Ed Harris puts in yet another solid,
nuanced performance, as does Sturgess, who has proven time and time
again he has, despite his relative youth, more than enough presence to
carry a film single-handedly. Farrell likewise puts in one of his more
memorable performances, although his perpetual tough-guy squint grows
irksome after about the fifteenth minute. Overall The Way Back
is a first-rate escape movie, and an impressive addition to the canon of
one of Australia’s most inimitable directorial greats.
The sole bonus feature is a 30-minute
Making Of, which contains interviews with Weir and all principal
castmates, behind the scenes footage, insights into the creative and
collaborative process, and so on. It’s comprehensive and insightful,
and an excellent complement to the feature itself.