Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on January 21, 2011
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Keith R. Clarke and Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Gustaf Skarsgård, Zachary Baharov, Irinei Konstantinov
A grueling account, based on actual events, of several prisoners who escaped from a Siberian Gulag during WWII, who then trekked 4,000 miles across snowy mountains and scorching desert in hopes of reaching safety, and eventually freedom. What made the film unique, to me at least, was the lack of emphasis on the escape, and the absence of a manhunt by the Russian authorities for the escapees. This was strictly a character study, showing the grit and determination of a disparate collection of people who joined forces, forged bonds, and helped each other fight to survive against overwhelming odds.
Jim Sturgess takes the lead role here as Polish officer Janusz Wieszczek, who is captured during the Russian invasion of Poland and refuses to admit he’s a spy; his wife is taken captive and forced to admit otherwise, and he’s soon sentenced to twenty years at a labor camp in Siberia…a ‘five million square mile prison’. Upon arrival at the formidable snowbound camp, he immediately begins making escape plans, and gathers a handful of other prisoners—including Ed Harris as the American engineer Smith, and Colin Farrell as the banished Russian thug Valka—to take part in his getaway. Joining the men along the way is Irena, a teenage girl played by Saoirse Ronan, who’s on the run for reasons of her own.
After this short set-up and prison escape, the film focused on the group’s extensive walk, through Mongolia, the Himalayas, and into British India, with only a few sacks of basic supplies and the bare minimum of clothing in their possession. The characters were a mixed bag of nationalities—Polish, Russian, Yugoslavian, Latvian, and American—and the actors portraying them did a fine job of not only keeping you thoroughly engaged in their quest, but making you care about each and every one of them as well. Part of that credit should go to Peter Weir, who helped one get a feel for and understand the breadth and scope of their journey, with his direction, writing, and panoramic photography.
But I think what really impressed me most was how the film took a different narrative path for a wartime drama, and didn’t need tanks and explosions and artillery fire to tell a gripping and exciting story; the characters, their conversations, and their interactions were enough. I was also impressed with how Weir took advantage of several scenic locations in Morocco, Bulgaria, and India to create some breathtaking shots, ones that used weather and distance to show just how much hardship the group had to endure throughout their journey.
This was stellar work by all involved, and it’s hard to believe that so much could be done, and so many stimulating moments could exist, within a film where the bulk of the plot centered on people simply walking cross-country. But it worked, and worked well; The Way Back was all about the people, and I hope others who watch it will enjoy and appreciate it as much as I did. One of my favorite Weir-directed films, along with The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. (8/10)