Di­rec­tor Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ is a war drama in his tra­di­tion of sweep­ing epics.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE -

The vet­eran di­rec­tor Peter Weir, in­Wash­ing­ton for a screen­ing of his new movie, “The­Way Back,” con­sid­ers the ques­tion of whetherHol­ly­wood is still ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a PeterWeir film: classy, well-crafted and fa­vor­ing story over empty spec­ta­cle. Af­ter four decades, dur­ing which he di­rected films that earned more than $450 mil­lion and six Os­cars among them, Weir finds him­self in a pe­cu­liar po­si­tion, far from the stu­dios and power cir­cles of Hollywood but still work­ing his way, on his own time— and, partly, his own dime.

“You just adapt or get out,” he says. With “The­Way Back” Weir adapted, but with­out com­pro­mise.

The film, which opened Fri­day and stars EdHar­ris and Colin Far­rell, is a clas­sic WorldWar II drama, in this case about pris­on­ers es­cap­ing from a Soviet gu­lag by walk­ing 4,000 miles from Siberia to In­dia. The film was co-pro­duced with­Na­tional Geo­graphic En­ter­tain­ment; Weir joins a re­porter in theNa­tion­alGeo­graphic So­ci­ety’s sunny of­fices while a noisy claque of the mag­a­zine’s star pho­tog­ra­phers gath­ers in the lobby down­stairs.

“ The­Way Back” isWeir’s first film since 2003’s “Mas­ter and Com­man­der: The Far Side of the­World.” With its epic sweep, in­tense fo­cus on char­ac­ter, en­gross­ing nar­ra­tive and sim­ple, clean lines, it’s pre­cisely the kind of movieWeir be­came known for at the height of his ca­reer in the 1980s and 1990s.

Af­ter mak­ing the break­out films “Pic­nic atHang­ing Rock” (1975) and “The Last Wave” (1977), both pro­duced in his na­tive Aus­tralia, Weir swiftly proved a dab hand with any num­ber of gen­res and sto­ries, from stir­ring his­tor­i­cal dra­mas (“Gal­lipoli,” “Mas­ter and Com­man­der”) and at­mo­spheric thrillers (“Wit­ness,” “ The Year of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously’) to thought­ful dra­mas (“Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety,” “Fear­less,” “The Tru­man Show”).

What those movies share, along with “ The­Way Back,” is less a vis­i­ble au­tho­rial sig­na­ture than a clas­si­cal, so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach to mak­ing films aimed squarely at adults. When stars ap­peared in them, it was in ser­vice to the story rather than as a stunt or pack­ag­ing gim­mick. They weren’t shilling any an­cil­lary prod­ucts or video games or cross­over come-ons. They weren’t spe­cial ef­fects spec­ta­cles. They were movies by, for and about grown-ups— pre­cisely whatHol­ly­wood seems in­ca­pable of mak­ing these days.

“I’ve watched the mar­ket chang­ing in the last five to seven years, mov­ing to­ward what I would call chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming,” saysWeir, who at 66 cuts a fit, dap­per fig­ure in a black sweater and art­fully knot­ted scarf. “I am sur­prised, even amongst ac­quain­tances of friends ofmy chil­dren in their thir­ties, that . . . you re­visit child­hood by go­ing to the cin­ema as an adult.”

Weir has de­tected other changes as well; he sees more scripts, he says, in­spired by fact-based sto­ries. “I was say­ing tomy wife [‘The­Way Back’ cos­tume de­sign­erWendy Stites] that some­thing’s changed in the last fewyears,” he says. “Which prompted her ob­ser­va­tion that since 9/11 this idea of

Peter Weir’s ‘The Way Back’ marks his re­turn af­ter 7 years. He still re­fuses to take the Hollywood route.

‘ based on a true story’ as a qual­i­fi­ca­tion of your film has risen. Be­cause on that day, truth be­came stranger than fic­tion.”

Weir adds that “The­Way Back” got “ tangled up” in its own strug­gle with truth claims when he dis­cov­ered that the book it’s based on was largely fab­ri­cated. In “ The Long­Walk,” pub­lished in 1956, author Slavomir Raw­icz wrote that he and six oth­ers made the epic trek from the Siberian prison to In­dia. Decades later, a BBC ra­dio doc­u­men­tary re­vealed that he never made the walk but was re­leased from the gu­lag as part of Stalin’s amnesty pro­gram to beef up a badly weak­ened Soviet army.

Af­ter first con­clud­ing that he couldn’t make Raw­icz’s story, Weir tracked down descen­dents of a Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer and in­ter­preter who en­coun­tered real-life peo­ple who did make the jour­ney. As he’s grap­pled with the is­sue of Raw­icz’s ve­rac­ity, Weir’s been struck in newways by the “ based on a true story” im­per­a­tive. “ There was a Josef Stalin. There were gu­lags; mil­lions per­ished or were in­car­cer­ated; very fewescaped; and this is a story of such an es­cape,” the di­rec­tor says. “ There is such a thing as a moral truth.”

To con­vey the story’s larger mean­ing, Weir es­chewed the more meta­phys­i­cal themes that have of­ten an­i­mated his work, from the ex­is­ten­tialmys­tery that pro­pels the dreamy “Pic­nic atHang­ing Rock” to Jeff Bridges con­fronting his own mor­tal­ity in “Fear­less” and JimCar­rey ques­tion­ing ex­is­tence it­self in “ The Tru­man Show.” In “ The­Way Back,” Weir delivers film nar­ra­tive at its most el­e­men­tal: one foot in front of the other, point A to point B. Must. Keep. Walk­ing.

It’s an apt metaphor forWeir’s own slog through an en­ter­tain­ment cul­ture that seems to be shift­ing un­der his very feet.

“I have faith in Peter,” saysHar­ris, who plays an enig­matic Amer­i­can es­capee in the movie. “I don’t think he’s go­ing to change what he needs to do as an artist. He’ll find some­thing he’s com­pelled to do, and he’ll find away to do it.” Still, Har­ris adds rue­fully, not­ing the ex­i­gen­cies of dis­tri­bu­tion and the mar­ket: “Whether any­body sees it is an­other ques­tion.”

ForWeir’s part, he dearly hopes it won’t be seven more years be­fore his next film— and pre­dicts that his next project, like this one, will be of mod­est scale and bud­get, with him work­ing on spec (“in other words, an in­vestor”). But he will also work at his own pace, guided by his own artis­tic val­ues. “I re­main op­ti­mistic, with some re­serve,” Weir says softly, “ that the wheel will turn.”

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST

PeterWeir di­rected such se­ri­ous fare as “Mas­ter and Com­man­der,” “ The Tru­man Show” and “Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety.”

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