Cult Cinema: The Way Back (2010) - Reviewed

Australian writer-director Peter Weir will always be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers of our lifetime, having churned out such masterful pictures as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show over the course of his career.  Nominated for the Best Director Academy Award for The Truman Show, Weir was hitting his stride as a major industry player at the top of his game.  But after the 2003 gargantuan epic war-at-sea period piece Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World once again made a splash critically and commercially, Weir’s productivity slowed down considerably before grinding to a screeching halt with his 2010 WWII prison escape drama The Way Back.

An ensemble period piece characterized by endurance, The Way Back is loosely based on Polish POW Slawomir Rawicz’s 1956 memoir The Long Walk detailing his alleged escape from a Soviet Gulag before embarking on a 4,000 mile trek to freedom.  Prominently featuring Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan, this expensive widescreen epic garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup yet passed viewers unnoticed, signaling the end of Weir’s career in film.  Tragically a commercial failure resulting from a bleak premise, the film is still representative of all of the director’s trademarks with particular emphasis on the physicality of the rugged terrain and the depths of the human spirit in the face of adversity. 

Shot by frequent Weir collaborator Russell Boyd who took home an Oscar for his work on Master and Commander, The Way Back has all of the grandiose visual splendor of some of David Lean’s finest 70mm panoramic widescreen epics.  Boasting stunning location photography in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, that this didn’t garner another nomination for Mr. Boyd is stupefying as it is undoubtedly the film’s strongest asset.  Even if Weir’s final film doesn’t resonate with you quite as strongly as some of his others, you’ll still be wowed by the breathtaking cinematography on display here.

Sonically the film boasts a moving orchestral score by Burkhard Dallwitz, best known for his work on Weir’s The Truman Show with Philip Glass.  Some of the most emotionally involved sequences in the film are given just the right amount of musical presence without becoming overbearing.  Weir is no stranger to creating striking soundtracks for films and with The Way Bay being a survival film, a great deal of attention is paid to the film’s sound design positing the viewer in hard winter snowstorms or deathly deep silence.  With the sound makes you feel the harsh heavy winds of seasonal and sea level changes, your left feeling blown out of your seat.

The Way Back features strong, memorable performances from all the cast members though no singular character takes center stage in the piece.  Ed Harris, who left an indelible impression as the creator of The Truman Show, gives one of his most physically demanding performances since his work on James Cameron’s The Abyss.  Saoirse Ronan is always good and her turn as a resourceful survivor will remind some of Rebecca De Mornay’s turn in Runaway Train.  Characterizations are broadly drawn but as the film progresses the overarching theme becomes less about an individual person than individuals banding together to survive. 

What appears to be the last film of Peter Weir doesn’t damage or change his legacy as one of Australia’s greatest directors.  For a filmmaker of Weir’s caliber, The Way Back proves to be as ambitious as anything the director has ever attempted despite never truly reaching the artistic heights of his earlier works.  Where films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Truman Show represent home runs for the director, The Way Back gains a lot of momentum before ending on a bit of a whimper.  Weir stumbles somewhat on The Way Back, a picture for Weir that’s a good but not great way to go.

--Andrew Kotwicki