The Way Back


Review by Patrick Garland

Right off the top I have to say the Peter Weir film “The Way Back” is my new all-time favorite movie about prisoners escaping a Russian Gulag camp during World War II. Of course, I haven’t really seen that many movies fitting that exact description. But top ten lists have to start somewhere you know.

All kidding aside, director Weir delivers the goods with his new film that he also co-wrote with Keith Clarke. Weir has long been a favorite director of mine with films such as “Witness”, “Dead Poets Society” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” on his resume. He has a knack for storytelling that draws you in and makes you pay attention as you are watching. He continues his fine work with “The Way Back”.

The movie, inspired by the book “The Long Walk”, revolves around a group of men that escape a Gulag in Siberia and because of the circumstances of politics and the world war going on around them, have no choice but to attempt a 4,000-mile walk to freedom in India. Along the way we are witness to the struggles to survive as they search for food and water, brave the bitter cold of the Russian wilderness, and try to make their way across the desolate and unforgiving Gobi desert. As the story unfolds around us, we learn more about the brave souls attempting the journey. And it is here, in the development of the characters, where the film really shines.

Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan all give wonderful performances with Sturgess and Farrell making the biggest impressions. Sturgess, who is best know for his role of Jude in The Beatles-inspired film “Across the Universe”, is outstanding. His portrayal of someone who has lost everything but refuses to give up no matter what man or nature puts in front of him is truly wonderful to watch. Farrell’s performance is equally outstanding. He plays a Russian criminal named Valka who is obviously not in prison for any political reason. It is pretty clear that he is just a really bad guy. It is amazing that there is no reason you should like this man or what happens to him but before you know it you are rooting for him. A lot of credit has to go to Farrell for pulling it off, as the character could have easily become one dimensional. Ed Harris gives his usual excellent performance and Saoirse Ronan should not be overlooked with her complex portrayal of a young runaway who meets up with the prisoners along the way.

I guess the only downside to the film would be that it is pretty easy to figure out who is going to make it to freedom and who won’t. The ones who don’t are a lot like the red shirts in the original “Star Trek” series. You know they will be biting the dust a mile away. That is the only real criticism I have for a film that is filled with fine performances and directed quite skillfully.

The main key to “The Way Back” is that it is not just a well-acted and interesting story. It is also the kind of film that makes you think. You can’t help but leave the theater moved by the human spirit as you realize what lengths the escapees were willing to go to regain the freedom that had been taken away from them. It serves as a lesson to never take for granted the freedom many of us have been given and how we should always keep in mind how important it really is. Anyway, that’s the way I see it.

Directed by: Peter Weir
Release Date: January 21, 2011
Run Time: 133 minutes
Country: USA
Rated: PG-13
Distributor: National Geographic Films


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