There are several things that are guaranteed to get me to the movies and high amongst these are a) a film with awe-inspiring scenery and b) a film directed by Peter Weir. Not necessarily in that order. This week I saw No Way Back, the true story of a group of men and one girl who, circa 1940, attempted to walk from captivity in Soviet Siberia to freedom and India. A walk of 4,000 miles, with nothing but what they could scavenge to survive.
I knew before I entered the theatre that this would not be a comfortable film, movies that begin in a gulag generally give me that impression, but when you have Peter Weir at the helm and Ed Harris and Colin Farrell amongst the cast, you put yourself in their hands. As you’d expect, the first act is harsh and brutal in the extreme. Our narrator, Pole Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is imprisoned on the evidence of his tortured wife and sentenced to twenty years in a Siberian gulag. His energy captivates the attention of men who need him to make that move to escape and face the one enemy that holds them within the barbed wire and the deadly mines: Siberia. With Janusz, we have the American, Mr Smith (Ed Harris), the artist and the accountant. We also have the street killer, Valka (Colin Farrell), who begins to see a new role for himself as the bodyguard of Janusz. Janusz’s main character trait is kindness and that is why men follow him and take risks. They know that if they fall, Janusz will carry them to safety.
Along the way, they find themselves followed by Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Known from The Lovely Bones and Atonement, this young actress gives the film its heart and holds the men together as they realise that the only way they can survive a walk through Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, China and India, is by helping one another. And it’s not just the sheer distance. The characters must cross icy mountains, even the Himalayas, and vast hot deserts, with nothing but sheer determination and the will of Janusz and, through him, each other, to make them put one foot in front of another, again and again.
I was surprised by how much I warmed to these characters. I was delighted by the little bolts of humour that lightened the seemingly endless drudge. I wondered how the film could avoid repetition with the shots of walkers with their sticks on a horizon of mountain or sand dune. But this potential monotony was avoided by the sheer will of the walkers as they strove to overcome each new obstacle although, along the way, these obstacles did for some of them.
The Way Back will make you cry but it will also make you smile. It is relentless. It shows you how massive the expanse and extent of Soviet communism was, reaching well beyond the borders of Russia. To overcome Stalin, you had to overcome odds that seem insurmountable, in character and in physical obstacle. But even the killer Valka warms to Janusz whose aim is to return to his wife, simply so he can forgive her and end her pain.
Everything about this film is epic and majestic. From the Himalayas and that awful desert to the music (John Stoddart) and the vast beauty and desolation of the landscapes. It isn’t sentimental – people are lost just as we feel we are getting to know them better – but it is inspiring.
Peter Weir directed way back in 1975 one of my very favourite films, Picnic at Hanging Rock. Since then there have been other masterpieces, Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, Master and Commander, The Truman Show, to name just five incredible films. I’m not surprised but I am delighted to say that No Way Back was at least the equal of all of these. See it.