DIFF ’10 Review: The Way Back
By the end of it, you might be looking for your own.
Day 4 of Dubai International Film Festival brought upon us the gala premiere of Peter Weir’s next film ‘The Way Back’ based on a true story and starring actors including Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Mark Strong among others.
Colin Farrell, Sturgess and Ed Harris all attended the gala event and were kind enough to interact with the fans and be a sport about it. With a short intro by Pete Weir himself and the cast, the movie officially began.
The following is my review of the film.
There’s a joke in ‘Clerks 2′ about the fact that the ‘Lord of The Rings’ movies are in essence a bunch of people just walking. And if that joke was on ‘The Way Back’, it wouldn’t be so much funny than true. ‘The Way Back’ boasts dazzling locations and a talented ensemble, but quickly descends into a painful to watch non-eventful bore of a movie.
In 1942, a group of suffering prisoners decide to escape a Stalinist Siberian gulag. But the escape was still the easy part as more than 4000 kilometers of barren and unforgiving land lies in the way of reaching a safe passage in India. As the gang walks towards its destination, it is met with a variety of setbacks including lack of food and water, a killing weather and … well that pretty much it.
What could have been something of an epic actually does start off pretty well as we’re introduced to the gang facing he hardships and torture of being prisoners. The lead among here is Janusz, a prisoner who’s wife herself confessed against him. Unable to cope with the pressing prison life in Siberia, Janusz assembles a team and breaks out of jail pretty early on. Till this point on, ‘The Way Back’ actually works as a pretty intense prison break film and gains a lot of points for that. You’ve got a unique setting, an interesting bunch of characters, and a clear goal of reaching a safe passage. Where could you go wrong?
Let’s talk about the scenes that follow first, since they’re actually pretty effective. The gang traverses through cruel land and the lethal harsh cold weather starts to get to them. There’s a brilliant scene in the film where a character is resting in the forest and begins to dream up an image, and then we quickly cut to his aftermath of the harsh cold. It was a quiet and very raw moment of direction that artistically showed us the effects of the piercing cold. The dynamics between the characters is interesting especially because of the brilliant performance by Colin Farrell as a violent and unlikeable yet humorous Russian inmate. When food begins to fall low, Colin Farrell’s character begins to brainstorm some pretty bizzare ideas that are fun to watch. Up to now, it’s an intriguing and sometimes humorous tale of unlikely members with the same common goal of reaching safety.
But then you begin to notice something and it slowly creeps up on you – there is no actual plot to the film aside to them walking to escape. There’s no obstacles for them to cross, no one trying to stop them, nothing that creates dramatic tension among the group. And this sticks out like a sore thumb the moment the gang traverses into a desert. From that point on, the movie is probably one of the most groan-inducing long stretches of nothingness that doesn’t have any end in near sight. Let me explain to you what happens – the gang of prisoners traverse down a harsh desert. They drink from a source of water they find and rest. Next morning, they’re walking again. Then they drink and rest. A character feels tried. They rest. Morning, they walk again. There’s hardly any dialogue on anything to distinguish these painfully long and pointless sequences that keep coming for more than an hour from that point. There’s no dramatic tension from what we already saw – it’s just a long stretch of monotony that doesn’t let go. The movie stretches that theme to an unbearable point that it’s a test of endurance both literally and symbolically. I understand that the director might be trying to show the audience how long and monotonous their journey really is, but some ideas don’t translate on film. And just because it sounds good doesn’t mean the audience is ready to watch a stretch of walking from point A to point B. The only thing that occasionally changes is the locations as they travel from deserts to mountains and fields among other places. Audiences began to walk out as the endless stream of walking didn’t seem to end.
Hence, there comes a point in the film where you frankly stop caring. It doesn’t matter if they make it alive or not as long as they stop walking. And eventually they do, but it’s too late to get any reaction out of the audience since they’ve already been worn out by the tiresome pacing of the film so far. With considerably tighter editing and reducing the utter monotony in the film, ‘The Way Back’ had the ingredients of being a great film. But those great bits only end up becoming bookends to an extremely plodding experience that isn’t worth the patience it demands.
The acting is pretty strong on all fronts. Colin Farrell of course ends up being a standout with a villainous yet charming role that provides much-needed humor and energy to the movie. Jim Sturgess gives his best performance to date but he’s in a role that’s a tad bit out of his emotional range. Ed Harris is of course phenomenal as a worn out veteran. Saoirse Ronan is the only female presence in the movie and ends up being charming in her role if not a little annoying at times. Mark Strong has a limited role but plays its well.
‘The Way Back’ has a great movie trapped inside a tiresome experience that has no one to blame other than the director’s excess indulgence that ends up alienating the audience. An inspirational true story in itself doesn’t guarantee a great film. It needs to be translated for film so that the same feelings are aroused from the audience. Sadly for most of the time, the only feelings in the audience here are boredom and fatigue.