When we think of the great directors, we think of authorship. Those that have distinct styles and tell distinct stories, so that we can watch moments of their films and take an educated guess at who made them. I'd be damned if Peter Weir isn't among the great modern, living, and active directors and yet his films are somewhat incomparable. He has been nominated for six Academy Awards (he also wrote some of his films) and three of his films have been nominated for the award for Best Picture. Are there any similarities when you take a look at his work? Someone on Wikipedia did a fantastic job of coming up with some ideas about how his films overlap and include dangerous situations (Gallipoli, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), constrictive social environments (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poet's Society), foreign cultures (The Year of Living Dangerously, Green Card), unfamiliar customs (Witness), or new ways of interpreting the world (Fearless, The Truman Show). Maybe that is why The Way Back isn't as strong as most of Weir's successful efforts. Although the whole film chronicles a dangerous situation, it only brushes over some of these ideas that Weir has shown he can strongly express in a cinematic format.
When a Polish POW named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is sent to a Siberian prison in the early 1940's for espionage, he quickly figures out a way to escape and recruits several prisoners to join him. Among the prisoners wanting to escape there is a priest with a dark past, an accountant with a humorous outlook on life, an artist and occasional cook, and one guy who is nearly blind. These characters (who range in nationalities from Russian to Polish to Yugoslavian to Latvian) are all played by talented unknown actors who do a good job, but I'll talk more about that in a bit. Two other imprisoned characters that help Janusz are an engineer named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell). They are American and Russian, respectively. Obviously, this wouldn't be much of a movie if they didn't escape, so of course they do and along the way they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), an orphaned Polish girl who is also on the run.
I was very much looking forward to this film, so I went and read some reviews and a major complaint was that there was not enough emphasis on the characters. I disagree as I felt we knew enough to care about them to a necessary extent. I may have not cared about them as strongly as other characters in ensemble films, but for something that is "supposedly" based on a true story (I'll later explain why I say "supposedly"), we obviously knew enough to understand their common motivation- surviving and escaping to a better place. If I had to take issue with something, it would probably be the story.
Now, I understand how difficult it must be to craft these types of films. Aside from trying to remain faithful to the source material, there comes the question of how much time do you spend on aspects of a story where most of the time the characters are walking? You obviously have to show the prison, but did we spend enough time to effectively be sure we understood how bad conditions were? You obviously have to show the different environments the characters are in (they walked from Siberia to India), but did we see enough of how the transition from cold to hot weather played with hearts and minds of the escapees? Does the movie give us the feeling of trying to survive without things we take for granted such as shelter, food, and water?
I can't be sure if Weir, both as the writer and the director, kept the focus on the right things at the right moments. I only say this because the movie didn't have much of an emotional impact on me and I'm searching for why. Perhaps it could also be because it was discovered that the book this film is based on was found to be essentially a lie or more accurately a tall tale (then again, I've heard stories of people walking far across the terrain of Europe during WWII to escape the oppression they felt... so this isn't a complete "out-of-thin-air" fabrication). Knowing this while going in to see the movie made me feel like the film was trying to do justice for a story that didn't exist (it opens with a dedication and closes with an unnecessary reminder of how bad the reign of Communism was). However, the reason I probably didn't respond to the film is most likely because there was a lack of dramatic conflict that would normally hang in the air.
The two strong elements of the film for me was the cinematography and the acting. The film looked gorgeous on the big screen, whether we were in a tight shot in the mines of Siberia or viewing a sweeping shot of the snow covered Himalayas. The performances were mostly solid, although the occasional line of dialogue would fall flat and feel insincere. Ed Harris and Colin Farrell were both the true stars of the film. Harris plays a character who is very unsympathetic and although he claims that is what keeps him alive, he soon learns (thanks to the youthful Irena) that caring in such dire times is not a bad thing. Farrell plays the "powder-keg" of a character who does the unexpected and it really demonstrates a well-rounded performance.
Once again, I don't much understand the criticism of the characters. Critics also apparently had a hard time literally differentiating between who was who among the unknown actors and I really didn't see much problem with that. They weren't the strongest of characters, but I suppose people were expecting too much. Then again, that is understandable considering Weir's past films. This was not as perfect as his previous outings, but still pretty damn enjoyable despite the fact I'm still grasping at straws about what prevented me from really connecting with the story.