An epic trek through cold, wind, snow, and savage beasts? Hah! Judge Steve Power calls that his daily commute.
Our review of The Way Back (Blu-ray), published April 25th, 2011, is also available.
Their Escape was only the beginning.
It's been seven years since we last heard from Aussie director Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). For reasons I can't possibly fathom, his most recent effort was unceremoniously dumped into a late 2010 release window amidst critical acclaim and public ambivalence. Does this Australian auteur deliver? Or is The Way Back more a footnote in an exemplary body of work rather than a full blown comeback?
Facts of the Case
In the early days of the Second World War, a group of inmates in a Siberian gulag attempt a daring escape. Once freed of their Soviet captors, seven people must undertake a daring 4,000 mile walk to freedom. In their path lie the harsh Siberian countryside, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas.
If there's one thing that Peter Weir undoubtedly excels at, it is in transporting a viewer to another time and place. Whether it's the deck of a British warship during the Napoleonic wars or the chaotic streets of 1960s Jakarta, Weir has a way of capturing atmosphere, authenticity, and intimacy that gets an audience fully invested until the curtain falls. The Way Back doesn't change a thing; we are pitched into the film with little in the way of setup, introduced to Janusz (Jim Sturgess, 21) as the Polish prisoner of war is forced to sign a false confession and shipped off to Siberia to rot in the most brutal prison system in the world.
The film takes its time in the first act, introducing us to a colorful assortment of characters, including a renowned Russian actor (Mark Strong, Robin Hood), an American architect (Ed Harris, The Rock), and a hardened Russian Gangster (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) among others. The prison scenes alone make for some mighty engaging viewing, as we watch Janusz come to terms with day to day life in the Gulag, and we meet colorful character after colorful character, then the escape comes, and the film becomes a different beast entirely.
When The Way Back strikes out of the Gulag it really takes flight. Debate rages over the authenticity of the tale which inspired the film, but whether fact or fiction, the plight of seven people as they attempt to hike it on foot, over 4,000 miles, with little other than the clothes on their back, is a remarkable story to witness. It's nothing new in terms of survival films, but it's presented in such harrowing, lush fashion that one can't help but become invested.
Weir's visuals are gorgeous, capturing the contrasting terrain of the Siberian countryside, the dry heat of the Gobi desert, and the cold desolation of the Himalayas beautifully. But the visuals play second fiddle to the cast, who do a universally marvelous job of endearing themselves to the audience, and convincing us that these people are real. Most notable are Ed Harris, who is so completely immersed that his scenes in the final act become chillingly tough to watch and Colin Farrell, who's given the most memorable entrance and exit, and who just plain rocks the role of rough and tumble Russian Gangster, Valka like he was born to play it. I don't know what it is about Farrell, but it's obvious that Hollywood clearly missed the boat on this guy, and here he adds further proof that he's one of the finest actors of this generation. Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) also turns in a beautifully nuanced performance as a "stray" the escapees pick up along the way. It's a heartbreaking role that she plays incredibly well. The fact that everyone performs so well while delivering thick, authentic sounding accents only adds to the fantastic acting on display. Even Farrell's Irish brogue is completely buried, and I'd never say for a second that he wasn't a Soviet native. I often get so caught up in the visuals or technical marvels of film that I overlook the job that rests on an actor's shoulders, then a real "actor's movie" pops up, and this is most assuredly an actor-driven film.
Survival films don't come along all that often. The concept of "man vs. Nature" doesn't seem to be as easy of a sell as it once was, as is evidenced by the relative obscurity of The Way Back at box offices last year. It's a sad thing, as we just don't see films this wonderfully and carefully constructed anymore, and the narrative is such that audiences turned off by the usual Hollywood idioms could very easily find something to love in this one.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The screener copy given to me for review was devoid of extras, had only a simple 2.0 stereo sound mix, and was heavily compressed. That said, I have seen the Blu-ray, and Weir's glorious visuals are beautifully represented. If DVD is your only option, then by all means, go for it, but if you really want to experience this stunning film as was intended, I highly recommend a high definition purchase for those with the technology to take advantage of it.
Simply put, The Way Back is just flat out phenomenal storytelling from a director who excels at transporting an audience to another time and place, raised all that much higher by an incredible cast of performers in top form. Miss this and you miss one of the very best films of 2010, and quite simply the single greatest film about survival against the forces of nature that I've ever seen.
No gulag could hold this one! Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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