Genre: Adventure/Drama Director: Peter Weir Cast: Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess,
Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Gustaf Skarsgard RunTime: 2 hrs 12 mins Released By: GV & InnoForm Media Rating: PG Official Website:http://www.thewaybackthemovie.com/
Day: 17 March 2011
A fact-based story centered on soldiers who escaped from a
Siberian gulag in 1940. Farrell plays a tough, tattooed Russian;
Harris an American; and Sturgess portrays a young Polish inmate.
Ronan will play a Russian on the run who meets up with the
Famed Australian director Peter Weir’s first film in seven years is the survival yarn “The Way Back”- based on the 1956 novel by Slavomir Raciwz- about a small group of prisoners who escape from a Soviet gulag in the 1940s and brave the elements across a 4,000 km trek from Siberia to India. The veracity of Raciwz’s tale has been called into question since its publication, but let that not distract you from Weir’s utterly compelling drama, harsh and sobering in its telling, yet thoroughly uplifting in its display of the indomitable will to live.
Weir, who co-wrote the screenplay with Keith Clarke, begins his story through the incarceration of a young Polish cavalry officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess), sent to a Siberian camp after being accused of criticising the Communist party and spying for foreign powers. In case the bleak wintry surroundings haven’t already smothered any hope Janusz and his fellow inmates may have had of escape, a Soviet official proclaims on the day of their arrival, “Nature is your jailer. And she is without mercy”.
History has taught us that there are two kinds of people under these circumstances - the first who would sit out their fate and wait for things to get better; and the second who are determined to take life by their own hands. Films like “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and “Life is Beautiful” have told of the former, but Weir’s film is about the latter, so Janusz will find like company in the form of an enigmatic American Smith (Ed Harris) and a vicious Russian gangster Valka (Colin Farrell).
Weir makes their dreary prison environment come alive with details as Janusz slowly develops a routine for staying alive- saying as little as possible, staying away from Valka’s gangster company and avoiding his innate kind inclinations towards other prisoners. Most of this he learns from Smith, who also warns him of another inmate Khabarov (Mark Strong) who may speak fervently of escape but has little real intention of doing so, instead using the hope of others to give his own miserable life purpose.
Weir briefly touches on the psychology of prison life before moving on to the psychology of something much more elemental- mankind’s basic will to live. Together with Smith and Valka, Janusz is also joined on his journey of escape by three other prisoners- an artist (Alexandru Potocean), a joker (Dragos Bucur), a mystic (Gustaf Skarsgård)- and later on a young Polish girl Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Aside from Janusz, Weir keeps most of the details about his characters to the trek itself, and their process of learning about each other becomes a mutual one for the audience.
Nature however is a character of its own of many different faces whom our heroes will need to endure against all odds- first the dense subarctic forests where temperatures can dip below 40 at night; then the scorching plains where it can be hotter than 40 in the day, then the blazing Gobi desert with hardly a drop of water to be found for miles on end; and finally the daunting mountains of the Himalayas. Weir’s depiction of Nature is vivid and startling, brought to life on location in India, Bulgaria and Morocco instead of some soundstage, and complemented by frequent collaborator Russell Boyd’s stunning cinematography.
Weir also does an excellent job of pacing the film, starting with a tense and gripping first hour as Janusz and his fellow inmates plot their escape, make their daring run for it, and are confronted head-on by the severity of the elements. The film seemingly loses some of its initial momentum after the halfway mark, but the more deliberate pace allows for the audience to appreciate the weariness and despair of our heroes journeying from one harsh environment to another.
In this respect, the talented international cast go a long way to give their characters humanity. Ronan brings her signature tenderness to Irena, while Sturgess is restrained and thoughtful as the unofficial leader of the pack. Best of all is Ed Harris, whose natural screen charisma and gravitas is clearly evident in every shot he is in. Harris has always had a knack for playing such stoic strong-willed characters, but he makes Smith something different altogether when his character forms an unlikely bond with Irena.
It is this display of kindness for one another that makes “The Way Back” an even more moving experience, as our heroes share what water they have with one another, make hats out of twigs and leaves for one another as shelter from the blazing sun, and carry each other’s load when the other is tired- especially as it is amidst the harshest of circumstances. Indeed, Weir’s film is humbling and uplifting at the same time, an epic tale of survival whose message of willpower and humanity will resonate long after the credits are over.
(Peter Weir’s tale of man against the elements is a compelling tale of survival that is as harsh and sobering as it is heartening and uplifting)
Review by Gabriel Chong