The Way Back (2010)


Director:  Peter Weir
Cast:  Jim SturgessEd HarrisColin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan
Plot:  Siberian gulag escapees walk 4000 miles overland to freedom in India.

Genre:  Adventure / Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Makeup.
Runtime:  133min
Rating:  PG for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language.

A seven-year gap separates Peter Weir’s last film, Master and Commander (2003), and his latest, The Way Back.  The respected Australian director of Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989) and The Truman Show (1998) delivers a visually spectacular film that pits Man’s unwavering will to survive against the merciless forces of nature.

Inspired by true events, Weir’s film is set in the 1940s during a time when Eastern Europe was besieged by Nazism and Stalinism.  Told from the perspective of a Polish man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) accused by his wife of spying for enemy nations, The Way Back chronicles his escape together with a few other men from a POW camp in remote Soviet Union.

Weir’s handling of his cast is remarkable.  He places them in hostile environments and pushes them to act as their characters’ circumstances dictate.  In one scene, out of extreme hunger, a man scrambles to pick up a millipede and chews it in his mouth.  In another scene, a group of men desperately laps up mud water.

Despite the unbearable conditions, the actors manage to dramatically convey the physical torture and suffering their characters are forced to endure as they trek thousands of miles on foot over freezing Siberian snow, arid Mongolian desert, and across the Himalayas to India where they finally find freedom.

Shot by Russell Boyd, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Master and Commander, The Way Back features a number of wide, aerial shots that show the fragility of Man in an environment that, on many occasions, threaten to consume him.  The events that occur in this film are at times so incredible that it seems more fictional as the clock ticks.  How could anyone possibly survive such a death trek?

A sudden appearance by Saoirse Ronan, who plays a Polish girl, midway through the film seems like a character conjured up out of thin air.  Moreover, she looks too clean and beautiful for someone who has been lost in the woods for days, without food and water.  Speaking of sudden occurrences, Colin Farrell, who plays a snobbish and volatile man, also leaves the group midway with a reason that is not clearly backed by character motivation.

All these are surprising because Weir is quite an excellent writer, and many of his films are memorable for their characters.  The performances, however, are top-notch, with special credit going to Farrell, who normally does not command the screen that well.  In a nutshell, The Way Back is a beautiful film, well-directed, and acted, but let down by poor characterizations and a screenplay that is too far-fetched to be plausible.

GRADE: B- (7/10 or 3 stars)

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