In a Hollywood climate in which every possible property has been franchised to death and sequels to movies that nobody even liked in the first place are routine, the lack of a follow-up to Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is perplexing. A critical and commercial success in 2003, the rousing seafaring adventure boasted one of my favorite Russell Crowe performances and felt like it was setting the stage for even grander things to come. But despite the 19 more novels in Patrick O’Brian’s series just waiting to be adapted, Weir didn’t make another film for the next seven years. And Crowe tried to be Robin Hood.
Now Weir has returned at long last with The Way Back, a gorgeously mounted epic that for all its virtues remains maddeningly remote. Weir and co-writer Keith R. Clarke are “inspired by” Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, a cult favorite that more than a few folks have claimed is bunk. Perhaps wisely, they’ve chosen to fictionalize the tale, which centers on Jim Sturgess’ Janusz, a rather annoyingly upbeat fellow accused of being a Polish spy. Sentenced to 20 years in a Siberian labor camp, Janusz immediately begins planning his escape. As pointed out by several fellow inmates, Soviet security can afford to be lax because the landscape itself is the prison.
Weir, working with longtime cinematographer Russell Boyd, doesn’t stint on the harshness of the conditions. There’s a tactile quality to the squalor, and you always know a movie is doing something right when it makes you feel its weather. Making a break for it during a blizzard, Janusz and a half-dozen or so pals outlast their pursuers by using nifty survivalist tricks like making face masks out of birch bark. So they walk. Good lord, do they walk—for 4,000 miles.
A spoilerific title card stupidly placed before the opening fills us in on the details of their journey, which stretches through the Gobi desert and across the Himalayas. It also informs us that only three will survive, sapping the movie of suspense and allowing audiences to wonder if the actors are going to die in the order of their billing in the credits. (You’re rarely long for this world when there’s an “and” before your name on the poster.)
One might think you’d get to know these people better after walking across a few countries with them, but The Way Back remains curiously thin in the characterization department. Ed Harris is stoically blunt, playing a mysterious American who gives his first name as “Mister.” Colin Farrell fares slightly better as a Russian thief, hamming it up with tattoos, bad teeth and a Boris Badenov accent. Sturgess is defined by his kindness, and we know as much because Harris keeps having people say “Kindness, that’s your weakness.” The rest of the characters blur together in a mass of indistinguishable beards.
The movie, partially funded by National Geographic, is far more concerned with these people’s surroundings. Much as in his Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock, Weir is fascinated by nature’s callous indifference to man, reveling in the vastness and brutality of these spaces. If you think things can’t get any worse than a Siberian blizzard, you obviously haven’t tried schlepping across the Gobi while short on water. The sheer physicality of the movie is often exhausting—almost the opposite of 127 Hours, in which Danny Boyle cut and jumped so frantically that you never felt trapped with James Franco’s unfortunate hiker. The Way Back makes you feel every damn step.
But for all the bravura filmmaking, it’s impossible not to wish there was more to it. Sturgess, so unmemorable in 21 and Across the Universe, brings just as little to the role here. Janusz has his reasons for wanting so desperately to get home, but they’re revealed way too late in the film, prompting a seriously silly epilogue. The brightest spot is young Saoirse Ronan, playing a plucky orphan who joins them for a leg of the trip. Anybody who thinks this wise ragamuffin isn’t going to melt the defenses of gruff “Mister” Harris has obviously never seen a movie before.
I suppose there’s something to be said for a film in which characters accomplish impossible feats through teamwork and general decency to one another. But what feels really subversive is the attention to old-fashioned cinematography, capturing the magnificent images without a hint of digital trickery. There’s craftsmanship in The Way Back that makes me hope it’s not another seven years before we get another Peter Weir picture. Master and Commander 2, maybe?
Directors: Peter Weir
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris
Running time: 133 minutes