The Oscars are a funny business. In recent years, a couple of film studios have waited until the last possible second to release films they hope to be in contention for a golden statue. Newmarket's release of The Way Back in December is no different. A film littered with famous names, treacherous yet beautiful landscapes and an epic "triumph of the human spirit" plot line is sure to resound with voters and the general public, right? Not quite. However much this film is buoyed by its star-studded crew -- including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) and director Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show) -- it suffers from its long, drawn out script and its inability to prioritize depth of human emotion over the hazardous world its characters are trapped in.
Sturgess stars as Janus, a Polish prisoner of the Communist regime sent to a Siberian gulag as a result of his treason to Russia. While in prison, Janus meets a man named Khabarov (played by Strong) who shares his desire to escape despite the barren, dangerous wilderness that lies beyond the fences of their captivity. Wiley Mr. Smith (Harris) knows that Khabarov is a man full of dreams, but never any action, and so decides to accompany Janus on his mission. Other inmates eventually get wind of the plan and join together as the fierce wind and snow provides the perfect cover for escape.
As the characters trek through the forest, across the desert and over the mountains, it becomes obvious that they had no room in their packs for personality. They squabble and whine about their situation, but you never really get a sense for who they are. The lack of depth is disguised until the 90-minute mark when you begin to realize that the only strengths of this movie are the wide shots and beautiful scenery. Maybe Weir was hoping to bring his audience alongside the characters and make them feel the grueling nature of the journey, but even with all the hardships and obstacles the group overcomes, it's hard to connect. You'll find yourself wanting the film to finish long before it actually does.
The film's redeeming characteristics are the performances of Harris and Ronan. Harris gives a great rendition of the grizzled veteran of the group and Ronan does well as the young and vulnerable Elena, but they are nowhere near the caliber of those who will grace the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
If you're in the market for a great film with Oscar-worthy performances, seek elsewhere. The Way Back is a slow and painful journey through a story as rough as the terrain itself.