Review: The Way Back

Posted: January 14, 2011 in Film Reviews
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A scene from The Way BackDirector Peter Weir is somewhat of an expert when it comes to telling stories of great courage, epic struggles and human nature. Therefore, he is the perfect choice to tell this harrowing tale of survival through some of the harshest climates the Earth has to offer. Though the movie’s key figures are clearly defined by their share of the narrative and the star power behind them, it’s the way the story is told that endears us to each of them.

Inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s acclaimed book, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, as well as other real life accounts, The Way Back chronicles the escape of a small group of multi-national prisoners from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and their epic journey over thousands of miles across five hostile countries.

The performances are heart-wrenching at times and uplifting at others. Never do any of the actors fail in conveying what level of suffering or elation is being experienced at any given moment. Jim Sturgess is the leader and the most compassionate of the group; he follows his heart, which often overrules his survival instincts. Ed Harris is the opposite, though he shows even he has heart despite how hard he’s tried to bury it. Colin Farrell adopts the personality of a frightening criminal flawlessly, naturally threatening and untrustworthy. He also grunts a lot, even though his Russian accent is passable. However, he too shows a softer side more than once. Saoirse Ronan is the only female in the group, which means she almost instantly earns the men’s affections; though they view her as a little sister requiring protection rather than a potential mate.

The climate is very much a character in itself. The Siberian winter is a cruel enemy that can, and does, rapidly extinguish a life. The area around the lake is paradise in comparison and welcomes the travellers with open arms. The desert is Siberia’s harsh, slower moving sister. She sucks the life from her victims and waits patiently for them to surrender.

As a dramatic adventure film, there is a lot of walking to follow the characters through, but there is also plenty of drama during their travels to maintain interest. This is in large part due to the fact that the picture opens with a title card informing the audience three men walked to India, but we watch seven escape – so you’re constantly waiting to see who is removed from the group next. (Don’t worry, not everyone that doesn’t enter India dies.) Also, it’s not completely devoid of humour. There is a touching scene in which two of the characters share a chicken recipe, only to begin arguing about the ingredients and the effects it will have on the taste of their imaginary meal.

I almost never say this about a movie – in fact, I usually argue against it – but the perseverance of the characters in The Way Back really is inspirational. That’s not the reason to see it though – it’s just a bonus. See it because it’s a good story with solid acting and excellent execution.


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