Having just seen 'The Way Back' in the cinema (not sure exactly I'll be posting this review) I wanted to get a few thoughts down whilst they were still fresh in my mind from the experience.
'The Way Back' is a movie that tells the tale of a group of men in a Siberian gulag during World War 2 who escape and decide to make their way south, to escape from Communist rule. This journey spans 4,000 miles of harsh conditions ranging from blizzards to deserts and a general selection of not very nice conditions.
At one point in the movie, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl they find on their journey, asks Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) why the men who escaped from the gulag do not discuss their personal lives and to this Mr. Smith replies along the lines of "in the gulag we learned to keep quiet unless necessary" and it is this exchange of dialogue for me which sums up what worked and what didn't work about 'The Way Back'.
What did work, astonishingly well, is the general tone, atmosphere and look of the entire film. Peter Weir clearly knows how to shoot a scene and Russell Boyd's cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. If there is one reason to go and see 'The Way Back' it is because of how amazing the cinematography is. The shots of the snow racked forests of Siberia, the enormity of Lake Baikal, the heat and vastness of the Gobi desert all look absolutely gorgeous. Many films don't make good enough use of on location scenery, but by the sheer nature of the story that is being within 'The Way Back', it would almost be impossible to not show how awe inspiring these locales are.
Then there was the use of silence, whilst the score to the film isn't exactly sparse, there are moments when there is no sound at all. All that is left on the screen is the image of this small group of people battling against nature so that they might live. Some of the most memorable moments in the film come when everything goes silent and all that can be seen is the silhouette of the haggard band of travels walking across a sand dune. The visuals in this film are some of the best I've seen from a film in a while and show that Peter Weir is a fantastic visual director.
Sadly what let's this film down is the fact that there is almost no characterisation of the people we are following on this epic journey. Beyond the lead character, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), none of the characters we spent the following two hours with are developed at all. In fact when the gulag is left behind, I didn't actually know who had been taken with them on this journey. Maybe it didn't help that I couldn't latch onto names or that because whilst in coats in Siberia, it was difficult to tell the characters apart, I found myself unable to give any personality traits to these characters. Of course it was easy to recognise who and what sort of character that Colin Farrell* was playing in Valka** but the actual attempts at making a fully formed three dimensional character weren't even attempted until half way through the film by which point it was far too late.
However by far the most telling moment of this complete lack of characterisation came a third of the way through the film where two characters are arguing, one of whom had been shown to be an artist (hence why he became known to me as 'The Artist'), the other has had zero screen time at all. During this exchange the character with almost no screen time (apparently named Zoran) proclaims "My job is to make everyone laugh". Up until this point in the film, 'Zoran' had done absolutely nothing funny, there was no scene of him telling an amusing anecdote, it felt like this line of dialogue was there to make us have something to identify him by, but how hard could it have been to have a scene where he tells a hilarious joke.
The main problem with not having compelling characters is that when stuff happens to them, you just don't care. Because this film focuses upon a gruelling 4,000 mile walk, of course some of the characters are going to die. However when there has been almost no attempt to make them fully formed characters, it almost becomes a nuisance. The characters were just there to service the plot in the end. Instead of coming to life as real breathing human beings, they just were. They did what they were supposed to do and died when they were supposed to. The character of Irena played absolutely no role in the film other than to act as a confident between Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris so that later they could have an intimate conversation.
'The Way Back' is a long way from being perfect, mostly due to the fact that none of the characters feel like actual characters. However luckily the rest of the movie is able to compensate for this. I've already stated how amazing it looks, but truly it does, watch the trailer above at the highest quality to get a taste of how good it looks. The characters might not be the most compelling in the world but the plot is interesting on almost a primal level, it might be a shade too long but it's hard not to be interested in the plight of the characters, even if you aren't particularly interested in the characters themselves.
It might have some large shortcomings but 'The Way Back' is still made enjoyable by stunning visuals and compelling narrative. 7/10
*Surprisingly, Colin Farrell isn't in the movie as much as the adverts and billing would have the audience believe.
**I've had to look up pretty much every character's name to do this review.