I have frequently belated the fact that Hollywood is no longer able to successfully make epic-style movies. Many filmmakers have tried, but with the exception of a precious few, most absolutely suck at presenting us with a story where you as the audience member can feel the epic scope of the film. Of the few directors who can pull this off and who HAVE pulled this off in the past is Australian filmmaker, Peter Weir (THE TRUMAN SHOW, MASTER & COMMANDER, WITNESS, GALLOPOLI, and THE MOSQUITO COAST). It is always a treat to see a Peter Weir film because he doesn’t make many movies and when he does, you know you’re in for quite an experience. I wasn’t completely sold by his last film, 2003’s MASTER & COMMANDER, which I found to be too boring despite its technical and acting achievements. However, given the director’s past success, I was more than willing to give him another chance. Trailers for his latest film, THE WAY BACK, looked promising and a return to form for Weir. I have been waiting a long time for a David Lean-style epic and the story for THE WAY BACK promised such an epic. Unfortunately, what plagued MASTER & COMMANDER afflicts THE WAY BACK.

Peter Weir’s latest is the remarkably true story of an unlikely group of escapees who flee the Siberian Gulag and brave the harsh physical conditions to eventually make their way to freedom in India. The story takes place in the 1940s when the world was embroiled in World War II. The plan is hatched by a Polish prisoner (Jim Sturgess), who has recently been sent to the Gulag. Those joining him in the escape include an American (Ed Harris) and a convicted Russian murderer (Colin Farrell). Along the way, the group meets a runaway girl (Saoirse Ronan) who also joins them in their journey. THE WAY BACK depicts the harrowing journey this motley group of prisoners takes as they travel south through the arctic wilderness of Siberia to the uncompromising desert heat of the Mongolian desert.

You immediately know that at least one of the prisoners completes his journey because otherwise there would not have been anyone to chronicle the journey and we would never have known about it. The appealing aspect of THE WAY BACK is discovering what the characters had to do to survive their ordeal. In that sense watching the film is like watching a more extreme version of the show SURVIVOR. The characters had very few resources at their disposal so the chance of reaching India was quite slim. From a historical and informational perspective, THE WAY BACK is a fascinating movie to watch just to see what it took to get from Siberia to India. Where the film falters, however, is getting us to invest in the characters themselves. For this film to work, it is imperative that you give a shit about the characters. You are embarking upon a journey with these people so you must empathize with them and feel like you are with them for the whole ride. I didn’t really feel that at all. Peter Weir certainly tries to create this connection between the audience and his characters, but where he fucks up is in the first act when he introduces them to us. We spend very little time in the beginning getting to know the characters before they begin their escape. We see a 1 or 2 scenes with Colin Farrell’s character and a few scenes with Ed Harris, but that’s not enough to help us understand those characters except for getting a very broad sense of who they are. Worse yet, the other characters who form the escapee group is completely ignored in the first act and I wasn’t really introduced to them until long after they have escaped. By then, its too late to create the character-audience connection and, as a result, you as the audience don’t really give a shit as to what plight may befall those characters. This becomes very apparent in the death of two of the characters where I think Weir intended to draw an emotional response from his audience.

In terms of acting, the entire cast delivers a strong performance, especially (and surprisingly) Colin Farrell. A few years ago, critics and studios were heralding the coming of Colin Farrell as the next big superstar who combined prodigious acting talent with movie star looks. I never bought into it despite seeing almost everything the actor starred in. I’m not saying Farrell is a bad actor, which he certainly is not. However, he never lived up to the expectations that everyone seemed to have of him. Here, Farrell does a wonderful job in playing a convicted Russian murderer. Although he does ham it up a little, Farrell convincingly displays the ferocity and unstableness of his character so that you never know when or whether he will suddenly turn and betray his escapee comrades.

I haven’t seen Ed Harris in a movie in quite awhile so his return to the screen in this movie was a welcome sight. Here he gives a quiet, understated performance that seems to perfectly fit the age of the actor. Little is known about Harris’ character and we only get bits and pieces of his character’s background as the film progresses. Sadly, the man who recorded his account that formed the basis of this story didn’t know what eventually happened to Harris’ character. Harris never told anyone what his last name was so there was no way to find out how Harris’ story ends. Harris is the only American in the group and the fact that an American ends up in the Gulag is enough to make him the most interesting character in the film.

Jim Sturgess sort of serves as the main character in THE WAY BACK. He initiates the escape plan and leads the group to their final destination. He is also the person who chronicles the story that forms the basis of this movie. I know I have seen this actor before, but since I’m on a plane and I have no wi-fi access, I can’t look up his credits and I can’t remember off the top of my head what films he has appeared in. Like the rest of the cast, Sturgess does good work here. He sort of reminds me of Jeremy Davies (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), but less of a pussy.

Finally, we have Saoirse Ronan, the only female in the group of escapees. Again, I have no wi-fi access as I write this so I can’t look up what films Ronan has appeared in, but I know I have seen in her something very recent (THE LOVELY BONES? Yes? No?). Anyway, apart from her very cool sounding name, Ronan is someone I think we will be seeing a lot of in the future and not just for her unique looks, but mostly because of her potentially great acting skills. She too does a good job here, but I think she has the potential to do much better as she continues along her career and you see a hint of that here.

THE WAY BACK continues a long-running theme in Weir’s films, which is that of man versus nature and man versus society. In films such as this, MASTER AND COMMANDER, THE TRUMAN SHOW (which also stars Ed Harris), and THE MOSQUITO COAST, Weir’s characters rise against seemingly insurmountable odds to pull off what everyone tells them can’t be done. Here, the prisoners take on that which everyone in the Gulag considers to be a suicide mission: escaping Siberia and surviving. Our characters take on both nature and society to accomplish their goal even when it seems apparent that what they’re doing is nothing more than a fool’s errand. Weir explores this theme most successfully in his very underappreciated THE MOSQUITO COAST, which was about a man and his family who attempt to create a utopian society in the middle of a jungle.

I really wanted to like THE WAY BACK especially considering that it may be many years before Peter Weir directs another film. Even though the film contains all the ingredients of a successful epic film, Weir is unable to combine those elements to craft a story that had a huge potential to be an instant classic. Instead, the film comes off as a 2 hour Discovery Channel documentary instead of a drama that explores the human spirit and its endurance to survive. With some more finessing, I think Weir could have made that film and I wonder if there is a longer, director’s cut out there that we will hopefully see on blu-ray.

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