I would like to issue you my formal apology. It will have to suffice, because I am assuming that Peter Weir, director and co-writer of The Way Back, has not stepped forward to apologize for including you in this inconsistent, poorly edited, and overwhelmingly melodramatic film.
While I enjoyed the individual performances very much, particularly from you, Mr. Farrell, who played a rather convincing Russian street thug, I question almost every choice Mr. Weir made in filming this so-called true story about a group of men who escape a Soviet Gulag in the 1940s. The story is epic. It is phenomenal, really. The film is a classic tale of war, oppression, comradery, a daring and reckless escape followed by an inconceivable journey, all framed by the cold, relentless, and cruel Siberian landscape, in itself a stand-in for the old Soviet regime. Obviously, playing a role in telling this tale seemed like a rare opportunity for all those involved, as well as the chance to work with the very talented, six-time Academy Award nominee Mr. Weir, which may be why all of you signed on. However, I am sure you did not expect it to go so very wrong. You should all know, dear Cast and Crew, that even Solzhenitsyn is turning in his grave.
Reviewers, completely ignoring the more obvious faults of Mr. Weir’s latest epic, have complained that The Way Back is a film completely out of date, that it recalls Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and the time in which such historical epics were studio staples. They claim movie audiences only want to see comic book characters and computer-generated landscapes. Nonsense. There is still room for the dramatic epic, audiences will still watch hours of intense drama shot on location, without the aid of computer technology or the frivolity of 3D. However, we want to see it done well. If we are watching realism, we want it to be real, or, as is the case in Hollywood, at least feel somewhat real.
For instance, I am surprised, dear Cast, that Mr. Weir failed to make clear to you how the extreme Siberian cold takes hold of the human body. Had he explained it to you, had Mr. Weir directed you to act as if it were really minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit, we never would have seen shots of your characters out of doors, with exposed skin that did not later turn black with frostbite. We never would have seen an armed Russian guard illogically holding a metal pistol with his bare hands during a snowstorm, when that pistol surely would have instantly adhered itself to his skin. I am sorry, because on this point, Mr. Weir only needed to consult Bob Clark’s classic film, A Christmas Story and watch as Mr. Clark masterfully films young Flick bonding his tongue to a school flag pole during recess, all because of an unheard of triple dog dare. This is classic cold weather cinematography. On the same point, dear Cast, Mr. Weir could have also consulted White Out, which, although a terribly wretched film, does include exceptional cold weather chase scenes and also depicts Kate Beckinsale’s character losing two fingers to frostbite after she exposes her bare hands to the Antarctic cold. Truly, a terrible fate, especially for a lead character, but because Miss Beckinsale wore gloves in most of her scenes, the on-screen amputation did not really mar her starring beauty.
I apologize, because had you, dear Cast, been properly directed, you would have mimicked the effects severe cold has on the human body: clumsy and clenched up joints, lethargic movements, dulled speech, uncontrollable shivering, and the like. I understand that you, the film’s stars, would clearly have to remain intact and beautiful, but you, makeup artists, should have added the dead, black flesh to the faces and hands of the stars’ many on-screen comrades. The audience should also have seen, again, only in the extras, of course, cracked and bleeding lips, eyes whose eyelashes disappeared from constantly freezing shut, and at the very least, some missing limbs. Mr. Weir should have also reproduced the strange effects of the great Siberian cold on camera: the tears from your watery eyes freezing on your face, your spittle turning to ice before it hits the ground, the tinkling sound of your vaporous breath shattering as you exhale. You should have also been less healthy. I am very sorry to say it, dear Cast, but yes, you should have been quite ill, or again, at least, ill-looking. Let us not be ridiculous. For obvious reasons, one should not actually recreate the dramatic effects of starvation to appear emaciated onscreen, a la Christian Bale in The Machinist, but your makeup artists should have been instructed to make your cheeks look less full, your eyes less bright, and your skin more sallow. You should have walked as the starved do and hobbled like those who have been routinely beaten and forced into hard labor. Among the extras, where were all the fevered bodies, the hacking coughs, the hunched backs, and the toothless mouths? I apologize to all of you, but misery should have really run rampant through the extras.
Your Gulag was also a little too cozy. While there are a few images of despair in the bunker, they are overridden by what reads on film as a warm, snug, comfortable space. Here, Mr. Weir has you straying a little too far into Hogan’s Heroes territory. No, there is not exactly a Schultz figure standing at the ready, but there is no palpable hopelessness either. It is odd, especially because the stark desert scenes, which comprise the majority of the film, are so tangible. I cannot help but wonder, dear Cast and Crew, if Mr. Weir actually filmed the Gulag portions without consulting at least one of Solzhenitsyn’s legendary texts, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Gulag Archipelago, both which could have accurately aided him in staging those Siberian camp scenes to look less like an Alpen resort.
Although I have spent a large portion of this apology writing about Mr. Weir’s Siberian mistakes, as Mr. Weir films you, dear Cast, walking south, the film begins to get better. The dialogue becomes a little more natural and Mr. Weir’s direction a bit more artful. However, and I really cannot overlook this, the end dissolves into absurdity. Again, my apologies, but your two minute trek through the Himalayas seemed ridiculous until I saw the film’s overly sentimental end: another egregious error from Mr. Weir. As I write this, I can hardly find the words for what Mr. Weir must have been thinking, and why he committed such a blunder, one which far surpasses ignoring the master, Solzhenitsyn.
I must, dear Cast and Crew, draw your attention to the spinning newspaper montage. This near-end portion of the film left me speechless. No, I was not awed by spectacular filmmaking, instead, I was in shock at the sheer stupidity of this montage, similar to the clock whose hands move in double time or the wall calendar, whose pages peel away one by one to indicate the passage of time. The stupidity of this effect can only be measured in one way, dear Cast and Crew, against another gaffe of similar absurdity: Jar Jar Binks. Yes. I truly apologize, because up until this point Jar Jar Binks, successor to the Ewok mistake, was the most idiotic thing I had ever seen on screen. Now, I can clearly point to Mr. Weir’s “spinning newspapers of time,” complete with ghostly walking feet, as the most laughable moment on-screen, particularly in a film that is not meant to be comedic.
Yet, unbelievably, in these last five minutes, Mr. Weir’s film only gets worse. I am so sorry, wonderful Cast and Crew, that you were involved in this abomination. Mr. Weir really should have known better; he is the man who gave us that treasure Gallipoli. Nonetheless, he uses an incredibly weak visual device, which only appeared twice at the beginning of the film, to bring this epic to its sentimentally climactic end. Yes, lovely Cast and Crew, this is where I took most offense, the portion of the film that has Jim Sturgess’ character, Janusz, as an old man, finally coming home, reaching the door of his old house, removing the key from its years-long hiding place, and finally entering, when he is suddenly, through Mr. Weir’s magic, transformed once again to his youth. Janusz then embraces his similarly youthful wife, who has been understandably sitting in their home and waiting some fifty years for him to return. With this, the film draws to a close.
You do not really need me rehashing this embarrassing finale for you, Cast and Crew, because you probably remember it well. It is a ghastly cloying end to a project which demanded much of your acting and technical expertise. For me, dear Cast and Crew, I felt as though Mr. Weir abandoned the film as soon as those newspapers started spinning. He should not have given up on all of you talented people. He should have honored your work and persevered, if only because your good names are also attached to this wreck.
Yet another apology, dear Cast and Crew, because I very much wanted this film to succeed in spectacular fashion. Although, its opening weekend, shared with the Super Bowl, should have tipped me off to its less than acceptable state. Someone, prudently, looked at the final cut and realized that this film would not hold up for Hollywood awards season, so its January release perhaps offered the audience some other fare in case they had already seen that long-running psychotic ballet film or the other about the Royal with a speech impediment. You all know the films of which I write. Perhaps, dear Cast and Crew, you wish you could have been in these Oscar darlings, instead of tramping around Bulgaria, Morocco, and India with Mr. Weir. Perhaps you wish, as I do, that the talented Mr. Weir had simply made a better film.
My most sincere apologies,
Petra Lina Orloff