Review: The Way Back
PLOT: Prisoners in a Siberian Gulag circa-1939, escape their captors and attempt to walk to India, in order to evade their communist jailers.
REVIEW: THE WAY BACK is the latest film from director Peter Weir, and if that isn’t cause for excitement, I don’t know what is. Seriously folks. THE LAST WAVE. GALLIPOLI. WITNESS. THE MOSQUITO COAST. DEAD POETS SOCIETY. THE TRUMAN SHOW. MASTER & COMMANDER. These are just a sampling of his films. THE WAY BACK is a film that would have been an epic blockbuster if it had been made back in the sixties, seventies, or even the eighties- but now is considered “uncommercial”, and was unable to secure a large distributor, and is only getting a modest theatrical release.
I’ve been trying to catch this film for months, to little avail. For some odd reason it skipped TIFF, but having finally caught it for myself, I can assure fans of Weir’s work, THE WAY BACK is another terrific film and a near-masterpiece. The idea that this is getting such a small scale theatrical release is a travesty. Beautifully shot on location by Russell Boyd (who also shot MASTER & COMMANDER) this demands to be seen on as large a screen as possible, as it’s a real old-fashioned epic.
When I say “old-fashioned” I mean that as a compliment, in that, uniquely for our era, and despite being shot on an epic scale, THE WAY BACK focuses on characterization, and not spectacle. Based on actual events, this story of political prisoners walking 4000 miles to freedom is gripping stuff. Of course, it’s also quite a grueling film at time, and the viewer is not spared the realities of such a grim escape. You get to see our heroes suffer from starvation, snow-blindness, frostbite, and in one particularly uncomfortable scene, a massive mosquito attack.
Weir really makes you feel like you’re along on the trip with these escapees, and I have no doubt that will be too much for many viewers to handle. However, those that aren’t afraid of being challenged by their entertainment can settle into 133 minutes of intensely gripping entertainment.
In addition to the beautiful photography, and a terrific (if sparse) score by composer Burkhard Dallwitz, Weir’s also done a commendable job casting the film. The ensemble is led by Jim Sturgess. Those of you that only know him as a heartthrob from films like ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, and 21 will be blown away by his performance here, which is a star-making turn if I’ve ever seen one. Condemned by a phony confession tortured out of his wife by Soviet agents, his Polish Political prisoner makes for a compassionate and intriguing hero. Off of this film, I feel confident in predicting imminent stardom for Sturgess.
Supporting him are several other terrific actors, led by Ed Harris, who plays an American prisoner. The most cynical of the group, Harris‘character is the one that seems to evolve the most over the course of the film, especially once Saoirse Ronan enters the film, as a Polish escapee from a Soviet work camp. Their emerging father/daughter relationship is one of the more touching aspects of the film. THE WAY BACK also offers yet another fine role for Colin Farrell. While he may not be the “it boy” he was a few years ago, he’s done some incredible work over the last few years, and he goes against type as a brutal gangster that blackmails his way into the escape. The constantly working Mark Strong also has a small role as the prisoner who sparks the idea of escape in Sturgess.
Suffice to say, I thought THE WAY BACK was an incredible film, and I strongly urge anyone who’s lucky enough to live near a theater playing this film to take the journey offered by THE WAY BACK. At times it’s grueling, and even difficult to watch, but it’s a remarkably powerful film.