It is downright criminal that we haven’t had a film from director Peter Weir in eleven years. Coming not exactly on the heels of the, ahem, masterful Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), 2010’s The Way Back was met with critical acclaim but little box office success and, as of the time of writing, is Weir’s last feature film. Since then? Nothing.
That’s genuinely upsetting for fans of Australian cinema, given that the Sydney-born 76-year-old is without a doubt the finest filmmaker this country has produced. That’s an assertion that might prompt the beginning of a pushback, until you realise that even if he had only made, say, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981), he’d have a fair claim on the title. Consider his entire body of work, including the satirical The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), ecological horror The Last Wave (1977), and his Hollywood years that produced Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998), and more, and it’s unarguable. His Australian New Wave contemporaries are no slouches, either, but we know who wears the crown.
Like all auteurs, Weir has favoured themes he revisits in his work, and chief among them is the idea of communities and how they function, or sometimes fail to. From the predatory towns of The Cars That Ate Paris and The Truman Show, the rigidly hierarchical schools of Hanging Rock and the Dead Poets, the military organisations of Gallipoli and Master and Commander, and the self-isolated communities of Witness and The Mosquito Coast (1987), the common thread is the notion of people simply trying to live together, often by codes that are either forced upon them, or that they have chosen but that are alien to mainstream society.
In The Way Back, it’s definitely the former. Based on the book by Sławomir Rawicz, The Way Back is tells the true (allegedly – there has been some controversy) story of a mixed group of prisoners who escaped a Siberian gulag during World War II and walked over 4000 miles to freedom in northern India, crossing the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas on the way.