Film review: The Way Back

4 March 2011

Written by: Ashley Fritsch

The Way Back is the latest Peter Weir film, tracing the story of a group of escapees from a Siberian Gulag in the Soviet Union. In some ways it follows a predictable trajectory — stories of escapees necessarily tend to begin with some explanation of why they are locked up in the first place, followed by an introduction to their place of imprisonment before they start scoping for a means of escape. However, this didn’t prevent the film from holding me in its thrall throughout its 133 minute running time — I was completely engrossed. I have to admit that the controversy surrounding the book on which the film is based (The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz) kept popping into my head at inopportune moments, but ultimately the film does not lose any of its punch because of that debate.

While the horrors of Nazi Germany are widely studied, with many books and films produced on the subject, those of us coming up through the Australian school system usually find that we have very little knowledge of Stalinist Russia. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Hollywood has largely stayed well away from Stalin’s regime. In this respect alone, it’s positive that a film such as The Way Back has been made, allowing this chapter of history to a reach a new audience, albeit in a fictionalised form.

The movie is by no means an overly negative or depressing film, but it nonetheless filled me with a sense of the overwhelming nature of human suffering. The early scenes of the movie gave an indication of the sheer numbers of people imprisoned in Siberia and reinforced the sweeping nature of their pain. The escapees in this story are just a drop in the ocean of people who have been imprisoned, tortured or worked to death, or who have lost their lives in harsh landscapes throughout human history.

The way in which the film’s characters are often dwarfed by the landscapes they are traversing only adds to this sense of enormity. This sacrifice of character is necessary in the scope of such a large story – the journey from Siberia to India covered 7,000 km – and in order to demonstrate the majesty and enormity of the landscapes through which they passed.

Like Weir’s previous film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, there aren’t many surprises in The Way Back, with the possible exception of the presence of a Polish teenager for part of the journey. However, also like Master and Commander, it is smoothly executed, evidently well researched and contains some excellent cinematography. It left me thinking about the nature of human interaction and suffering, particularly in the midst of harsh landscapes, and offers a fine tribute to those who perished in Soviet Gulags.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a recent creative writing graduate and a tall ship sailor from Fremantle.  She is studying Master of Global Communications at La Trobe University and is a member of the editorial team for upstart.  This review was first published on her blog, equineocean.