Review: The Way Back

Starring: Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell

Director: Peter Weir

It is 1941 and Polish political prisoner Janusz leads an escape from one of Josef Stalin’s Russian gulags in Siberia. The eclectic group go on the run and begin an epic 4,000 mile walk to India and freedom, determined to survive both the rough terrain, harsh elements and passage through the vast Communist territories ahead of them.

Director Peter Weir has often shown a fascination with tales of mankind against the elements, be it the Central American jungles of The Mosquito Coast or the unforgiving seas of Master and Commander, and he continues his theme with this, his first film for nearly eight years. The Way Back is based on the book The Long Walk by former Polish prisoner SÅ‚awomir Rawicz, who claimed the events were true, only for those claims to be later refuted, and someone else come forward and declare that the story was his. Whatever the veracity of the source material, The Way Back remains a fascinating tale.

Weir wastes no time in illustrating just why anyone would be driven to attempt such a journey. The gulags of Siberia were terrible places, where ‘enemies of the people’ were placed for the most arbitrary of reasons. Cold, dirty and ruthlessly run by criminal inmates, it is little wonder that Janusz, imprisoned on the basis of a confession from his own wife, decides to make a break for it. Enlisting the aid of several fellow prisoners, including Ed Harris as the American Mr. Smith and Colin Farrell as Russian thief Valka, his small band escape during a blizzard and, with little in the way of provisions, begin to head South on a journey that takes in the snows of Siberia, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas.

It is in capturing both the stunning beauty and cold disregard of these landscapes that Weir, with funding from National Geographic, exhibits his greatest strengths. This is a movie that, while celebrating the exuberance and determination of the human spirit, reminds us that we are very much at the mercy of the world we live in, passers-by in landscapes that can grind us to dust. As the group progress and fight starvation, exposure and exhaustion, it becomes clear that not everyone will make it to the end. But those that don’t are celebrated for dying as free men.

The sudden outbreak of vomiting left Ed glad he hadn’t had the fish course

As leader of the group by default, Jim Sturgess’ Janusz is a solid central presence, the will of the group when they falter. Ed Harris brings his usual gravitas and quiet dignity to proceedings and Colin Farrell finds the endearment in his violent, loutish Valka. Saoirse Ronan is perhaps a little underused as another Polish refugee the group pick up along the way, and there is sometimes a general lack of exploration of the characters on the whole. But when you have the land itself as your lead performer, this is understandable. The power of the story doesn’t suffer too much from it.

The Way Back seems like it was rather neglected on its initial cinema release. Hopefully with its DVD release it will pick up more of an audience. It deserves to.

Rating – 4 Stars

 


25 people thought reading “Review: The Way Back” would be a good idea. Stranger still, they left messages...

  1. Custard

    Very nice review.

    I for one am now going to try and see this. It sounds like a beautiful piece. I do love a good landscape! Thanks for putting it together matey,

    Custard

    Reply
  2. Helen

    I always feel little conflicted when I recommend a movie like “The Way Back” on DVD. As you say it’s good that it has a second chance at finding its audience (it only played two weeks in my city, with no publicity to speak of), but on the other hand I can’t imagine it has the same emotional power on the small screen. The impact of the “stunning beauty and cold disregard of these landscapes” (well put) depends to an extent on scale, on seeing the characters dwarfed by the impersonal hostility of the land. It’s a more powerful emotional experience when we live their physical experience vicariously, small in front of the huge theater screen. It hasn’t stopped me from recommending it, it’s a fine movie and I want to people to see it; I just wish they’d seen it in the theater.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      I absolutely agree with you, Helen, but I saw it on DVD and so can at least vouch for its impact on the small screen. It’s definitely one of those that I would like to have seen writ large, though.

      Reply
  3. Castor

    I enjoyed this although it can be a bit slow moving. I thought Colin Farrell left the movie way too early. The movie also should have ended sooner rather have a couple fake endings. Still a very good film. Good review Richard!

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Thanks, Castor. :-)

      I must confess I didn’t get the sense of fake endings from it. Certainly not in the way that Return of the King, another breathtaking landscape-filled journey, delivered them.

      Reply
  4. Dan O.

    I think it could have been better, but seeing this in the cinema was a great decision because the cinematography is beautiful, and the acting is very good, but I just needed more. Whatever that more was, I still don’t know. Good Review!

    Reply
  5. rtm

    Great review, Richard. Peter Weir does amazing work, doesn’t he? I really admire Master & Commander so naturally I’m really looking forward to seeing this. I’ve moved it to the top spot on Netflix right after reading this.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Glad you liked it, Ruth. It’s definitely worth a view.

      And conragtualtions on Flixchatter’s nomination for the Best New Lamb award! :-D

      Reply
        1. Richard Post author

          I get to be the bearer of glad tidings? Cool! I’m glad I was the one who let you know, Ruth. :-)

          Reply
  6. Val

    This sounds like something I’d enjoy, if ‘enjoy’ is the right word for this sort of story. It certainly sounds like it’s been shot in beautiful landscapes. You’ve painted an excellent review. Thanks.

    Reply
  7. Anna

    Cool that you enjoyed this, I’ve been reading some skeptical reviews. Alway been a big fan of Harris, so should check this shizzle out for sure.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      I’m a big Harris fan, too. He has great screen presence and always delivers, no matter the role.

      Reply
  8. Dan

    I’m not quite sure how this passed me by but it sounds like a fascinating film. I’m going to have to check it out. Excellent review, Richard.

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      Thanks, Dan. I think it’s one of those movies that failed to catch fire at the box office due its lack of explosions and superheroes. ;-)

      Reply
  9. Rory Dean

    Always insightful, calculated assessment here of a movie that I’ve kept putting off for far too long. It might be the setting or the burden of “prisoner” in the logline. For me I can’t get excited about another ensemble story that as of late feels like a concerted effort to sneak by on name recognition rather than solid story and characters. Heavy, mishapped and average sums up the lot I’ve staggered through lately. The trouble with a room full of good actors is giving them enough to do without resorting to stockpot caricature. I am drawn to Weir and the cast though and I can’t say enough good things about Ed Harris and Colin Farrell – equally charismatic with stage presence for different reasons – and Weir’s repertoire is damn near flawless.

    After reading your review I’m going to put this one back on my list. Thanks! Cheers-

    Reply
    1. Richard Post author

      No worries, Rory. I’m flattered that a review of mine can change a mind about a movie. I agree with you that the ensemble movie can often feel laboured and showy, but this one really would have worked just as well with a no name cast.

      Enjoy.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>