Christians sometimes talk about the life of faith in terms of journey, of walking, of traveling. It’s a helpful and Biblical image. From Adam and Eve walking in the garden in the cool of the day, to the desert wanderings of a whole nation, to a man who embodies God walking amongst us, to the missionary journeys of Paul, and on into the centuries of Christian spirituality writing, the image of the Christian life as a long walk with a faithful and sometimes mysterious and companion is a fruitful one. Walk with God, and in doing so learn more of Him and His ways.
The Way Back, released in 2010 and directed by Australia’s Peter Weir (amongst his other work: The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Master And Commander) is a film about a long walk. A very long walk, in fact – from Siberia to India. In telling a simple story, it entertains and provokes – as well as informing the Christian imagery of the journey in helpful ways. Christian imagery is not unusual in Weir’s films – watch Gallipoli or the brilliant Witness if you don’t believe me. The latter is a perceptively intelligent examination of a belief system that initially looks so culturally alien and distant, all wrapped around the kernel of a gripping murder-mystery/thriller. Then there’s The Truman Show, replete with religious overtones if you choose to see them. Maybe they’re subconscious, maybe not – personally I think there’s just too much of it in Weir’s work to suggest that it’s accidental.
The Way Back is taken from a true story; it’s 1941, and we follow a group of escapees from a Russian gulag whose long journey (Siberia to India, remember…that’s 4000 miles) on foot takes them through all manner of terrain and up against all sorts of difficulties. Given that we know from on-screen narration at the start of the film how many will make it to journey’s end alive, there’s not a great deal of suspense here. Instead it’s more of a question of who will make it and how the journey will proceed. That could make for a dull if worthy film – but it’s helped by two things. The first is a fine cast – Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan, Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris all turning in performances which are less about stealing a scene and more about building a believable group dynamic. Secondly, Weir is an intelligent director; though not a flashy one. He tells his story with an appealing simplicity and a sure touch in when to apply something more showy. Here that’s limited to moments of water-deprived hallucination (or is it reality masquerading as hallucination?); and the rest of the time allowing the unselfish performances and beautifully coloured cinematography to do the heavy lifting.
We’re left with a group-oriented character study. Their journey has conscious and deliberate spiritual overtones. One character is seeking forgiveness; another is desperate to get to his wife to tell her of his forgiveness of her for implicating him as disloyal to Stalin’s regime and hence provoking his imprisonment in the gulag. He’s convinced she wouldn’t be able to live with herself, though he knows well the pressure she was under. We all know the journey to forgive or know forgiveness is one taking us through some difficult terrain. Even those of us who say we know we’re forgiven find it hard to believe or live sometimes, and even harder to express to others. As we hear from the lips of one of the pilgrims (a label the travellers appropriate willingly when they find themselves in a moment of danger) “You pray too much for an innocent man”. Yes indeed. We know it’s true, and often it is too good for us to live as if it is true. So we keep praying when in fact we should just keep walking, the source of forgiveness faithfully at our side.
The pilgrims/escapees/travellers know they’re free when they reach a mountain-top bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags, signalling a freedom they can’t quite believe is theirs. It only sinks in as they sit together in a barn that night: “Only a few mountains to go, and we’re there”. A few mountains indeed. The Buddhist flags redolent of a belief and life system which depends on work and achievement. Left to our own devices and acheivements, forgiveness is daunting mountain-range indeed. The journey has taught them much, but not yet do they know if the forgiveness they long to receive or express will make any difference.
We never find out for certain if the one was able to be convinced of his own forgiveness, if his long walk showed him truth; we see glimpses of the reunited husband and wife – and implications of forgiveness understood there. Or is it a hallucination? We’re not quite sure; as if to reinforce that human forgiveness is never quite enough to be sure of, that there’s a need for something else. The film loses the courage of its convictions in its final frames with a brief overview of European Communism’s growth and downfall, lending an unnecessary wider perspective clearly lacking in the rest of the film. It would have been better, and braver, to trust in the power of the simple story.
Given what’s gone before, we can forgive the director that. True forgiveness, after all, doesn’t wait for us to get there. It travels with us in the form of a sometimes hard to recognise fellow traveller.
I rated this movie 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 7/10 on imdb.com