Now that I have finally seen Peter Weir’s The Way Back, I see why the film has been handled the way it has. It reveals how difficult it is to get a period drama financed and produced today. This labor of love took Exclusive Films (and foreign pre-sales), National Geographic Films and Imagenation Abu Dhabi to get made.
It’s a challenging, impeccably produced and directed, sprawling project shot over many locations in the mountains of India, the deserts of Morocco, Mexico, and studios in Australia and Bulgaria. Without a director of Peter Weir’s caliber and a strong script, they never could have assembled the cast they did: Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Saorise Ronan star in the $30 million film inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s novel, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, about a 1940 gang of escapees from a harsh Siberian gulag who walk thousands of miles and across five hostile countries to freedom (check out the domestic trailer below). The film has many virtues: it recalls The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape–not to mention another upcoming road journey, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.
But in today’s risk-averse climate, when no distribs can afford to make a costly mistake, this grim episodic slog—no matter how expertly executed–could not land a studio release. This is similar to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Cannes entry Biutiful, which wound up at Lionsgate/Roadside, which is equipped to nurture it properly. Exclusive is self-releasing the movie through its own Newmarket label, which is bringing in Chris Ball’s specialty distrib Wrekin Hill and Image Entertainment.
But even with 42 West behind it, Wrekin is unlikely to lavish the care and attention–and yes, spending–that a film like this requires. I saw it in a tiny inexpensive screening room (PR folks insist this was an exception); this movie should be seen with the biggest screen possible. It’s just the sort of old-fashioned epic that the Academy appreciates, but most of them will toss it into their screener piles: not ideal. Also, Weir purposely favors an ensemble. This is not a calculated hero-worshipping film where every star gets to show off in a bravura scene. Of all the actors, though, veteran Harris (who has been nominated four times and never won) carries the emotional through-line of the film, and could score a supporting nod.
The Way Back will open for a qualifying Oscar run in Los Angeles on December 29 and expand far too wide for a film like this (a planned 600 screens) on January 21, 2011.