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THE WAY BACK, 2011
A small group of multi-national prisoners escape from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and attempt an epic journey across five hostile countries.
Leaving behind the high seas adventures of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Australian filmmaker Peter Weir reemerges seven years later with a landlocked tale where the only path to freedom is a 4,000 mile trek through the worst conditions that Mother Nature has to offer. The Way Back takes inspiration from the memoir The Long Walk written by Slavomir Rawicz but has been augmented by other resource material, providing the film with an air of authenticity.
Opening with an interrogation scene, a young Polish officer named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is being betrayed by his tortured wife to the Soviet authorities; Weir serves notice that he is not going to shy away from cinematically depicting the injustices and brutality inflicted by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The camera mingles with the characters causing audience members to feel as claustrophobic and imprisoned as those serving time in the isolated Siberian gulag. As for Janusz, he finds himself having to navigate between a vicious knife-carrying thief (Colin Farrell), a grizzled American (Ed Harris), and an actor who may be either a friend or foe (Mark Strong).
Key to understanding the driving force behind the picture is the line uttered by the prison commandant when informing the new internees as to why there are no watchtowers or machine guns; he tells them, “Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy.”
These words are not rhetoric for even when the escape happens during a blinding blizzard, one gets the impression that Sturgess and his followers (Farrell, Harris, Alexandru Potocean, Gustaf Skarsgård, Dragus Bucur and Sebastian Urzendowsky) are simply trading a prison defined by barbwire for one without borders. It is a daring choice by Peter Weir not to follow the standard Hollywood convention of having the group pursued by the prison authorities or crippled by internal conflict; I believe this to be both the strength and the weakness of the film. The singular point of view fosters the sentiment of empathy within the viewer; however, over time it is as if the unrelenting struggle resembles a repetitious musical note. To his credit, Weir does try to rectify the situation by infusing lines of humour and having Saorise Ronan appear at the halfway point to awaken the paternal instincts of the emotionally-harden band of fugitives.
When it comes to the acting, I found myself impressed by the contributions of the lesser known supporting talents of Potocean, Skarsgård, Bucur, and Urzendowsky who certainly hold their own among the Hollywood stars. The trouble with such a large principle cast is that the two-hour screen time cannot be equally distributed amongst them. Bucur is memorable for his quick wit while Farrell believably portrays a man who cannot bring himself to abandon the country which has forsaken him. Strong thankfully does not get stereotypically cast as the cartoon villain and Ronan who flickers out like an exhausted flame definitely has the talent to follow in the footsteps of Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. Sturgess fully embraces his role as the leader with a contagious sense of determination and optimism. Harris is at home being the handyman of the wilderness; so much so apparently that he created some of the makeshift survival contraptions used onscreen.
In an age where images fly by in two seconds or less, I enjoyed having the camera linger whether it be for a close-up of Ed Harris or an epic landscape shot; it is nice to have the time to study the nuances of the people and the environment which they cinematically encounter. A major relief, Peter Weir focuses on the idea that adversity can be the means of building camaraderie. It is a welcomed change from the exhausting bickering that has become so formulaic in movies nowadays; also, there are no distracting computer graphics to be found. One could say that The Way Back is a product of old-school filmmaking where practical effects ingenuity reigns supreme. The standout sequence occurs when Saorise Ronan crosses a precarious ice flow to get to the other side of a riverbank; the sound of cracking ice combined with her fleet-footed running had me on the edge of my seat wondering if she was going to fall through at any moment. The Way Back has certainly been influenced by the previous works of Weir as the exploration of ethereal caves harkens back to Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) while the desert crossing echoes of Gallipoli (1981). The project has been described as “David Lean on a shoestring budget”; I agree with the remark for the $30 million picture is best seen on the big screen where one can fully appreciate its visual scope.
THE WAY BACK