Published Jan 20, 2011It's been about seven years since Peter Weir directed Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and judging by The Way Back, he's spent this time contemplating Christianity, absolution and man's relationship with nature. He's constructed a sprawling epic, hinting at the Book of Job, with its rumblings about truth and innocence, which almost reaches greatness, save some emotional disconnect at the expense of thematic consistency.
This independently financed production tells the true story of a handful of prisoners escaping a Siberian gulag in 1940, travelling over 4,000 miles by foot through snow, desert and the Himalayas to India. With interchangeable secondary characters, the focus is on Polish optimist Janusz (Jim Sturgess), Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) and American realist Smith (Ed Harris), each offering their own unique skill set applicable to wilderness survival in harsh, unpredictable terrain.
Utilizing a similar spatial foreboding and otherworldly eeriness of geography as Picnic at Hanging Rock, the antagonist is environmental conflict, rather than human. Without restraint, the nastiness of cold, starvation, mosquitoes, sunstroke, gangrene and severe dehydration are detailed in this long, deliberately contemplative trek, with bickering histrionics left by the wayside, for the most part.
While this trajectory of unforgiving, grandiose landscape dwarfing man is appropriate for an overall theme of seemingly insurmountable irrelevance and determination in the face of insignificance, the lack of character-shaping dialogue keeps things in didactic territory. We aren't invited to know these people beyond archetypes, which is intentional for the purpose of allegorical evaluation, but limits the effectiveness of the piece.
Amidst imagery of baptismal bathing and Jesus poses, a sense of bigger purpose emerges, capturing the truly astounding nature of this journey beyond physicality into notions of identity and the human soul, compensating for these minor shortcomings. Few films manage to capture this specific juxtaposition of purpose and lack of individual importance in such a uniquely hypnotic manner, making The Way Back a relevant, if challenging, must see. (Alliance)