The Way Back

Peter Weir's latest film is unusual because it treats of the gulag. You are used to prisons on film (in the 'West') and prisoner of war and concentration camps but the realities (and meaning) of the gulag is little explored.

All three forms of imprisonment are represented here: ordinary criminals (with their privileged status),  captured Polish soldiers seen as politically dangerous and Russians (and others) accused of varied political acts - from espionage to sabotage.

The darkly surreal nature of imprisonment in Stalin's paranoid purges is lightly but effectively sketched. Infinitely more difficult is showing the hardships of gulag life: you simply cannot act yourself into that level of stripped, humiliated degradation and physical suffering.

What the film principally achieves (beyond Weir's signature ability to make you feel land (or sea) scape in its inexorable indifference to your (man's) purposes) is showing the endurance of the escapees. On they walk across Siberia, across Mongolia and the Gobi desert and into Tibet, the three survivors finally arriving in India and freedom more than a year later.

One reviewer complained that they do this with no more inter-personal friction than he (the reviewer) has experienced on an afternoon hike with friends. But that I think (dear obtuse reviewer) is the point.  The American prisoner (and yes there were those in gulag, lured by Stalin as propaganda during the Great Depression, and swept up in the maelstrom alongside everyone else) remarks on the leader's (a young Pole's) kindness and how it may be the death of him (a remark, in different forms, he makes more than once).  This is the point, I feel, it is precisely that robust kindness that rather than be the cause of death is their salvation. He is able to keep everyone - even the 'actual criminal' escapee - attached to a common mission with a necessary zeal of shared hardship endured.

There is a telling moment at the Mongolian border where the criminal (played by Colin Farrell in need of an accent transplant) stops and will go no further: he cannot leave Russia. It is (the) prison he knows and his identity is too bound up with being just that - a wider freedom is not for him.  It is probably too much to note that he is the only Russian amongst the escaping prisoners - and the other potential Russian escapee, stays behind in the gulag, though sustained by the fantasy of escape, he cannot make the actual one real. It is implied that freedom is a fragile good, once tasted not easily forgotten, but if absent long enough, the will for it withers.

The film is necessarily too long: you have to glimpse the distance (in time and space) somehow; and, the scenery through which they pass is hauntingly beautiful (and when we get to the Mongolian border, for me, deeply nostalgic).

It is not the best of Weir's films but maybe it may set a trend and encourage others to explore and bring into the light a reality of our past history, whose oldest survivors now pass away, and which contemporary Russia still does not know how to treat.


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