The Way Back (2010) Review

Peter Weir has made an eclectic set of films in his career. There are directors that find that ‘one thing’ that they have to say and they retell the basic story over and over again. Peter Weir definitely is not one of those telling stories of war, great debates, love, cultural differences among others. If there is a common thread in some of his films, it may be individuals standing up against oppression in various forms.

I didn’t really see this as an ‘escape’ film. In fact the actual escape is almost an afterthought in the movie. The focus is on the oppressive political/governmental system and the journey to escape that. The various characters in this story are all victims of communist and socialist regimes (or occupation of their country in the lead’s case). What that really means is shown here in the loss of individual thought, religion, life and freedom, in general. This is based on one particular account, but there have been other similar stories of escape from the Soviet Gulag. “as Far As My Feet Will Carry Me” comes to mind and although that was a really good movie, it’s not of the same caliber as this one is.

The movie begins with a blurb informing the audience how a number of men in the 1940s( during World War II)  had escaped from a Soviet prison in Siberia and had managed to walk into India. You would think that that would a spoiler in some way, but it’s not. It doesn’t say that only three survived, but that’s where three of them ended up. The fact that they make it isn’t the point of the film anyway. After the blurb, the movie fades in to a dank stone room during the simultaneous Soviet and Nazi occupation of Poland. A Polish man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is being interrogated/interviewed by a Soviet official. He has obviously been roughed up and after denying committing any crimes, his wife is brought in. She is obviously also under great duress and tells the official what he wants to hear. He is a political prisoner, and after refusing to sign a document stating his ‘crimes against the Soviet Union’ (spying, for one), he is sent to a prison in Siberia, anyway.

Janusz is idealistic and kindhearted which makes it an extra dangerous situation for him. An American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) sees Janusz give some of his rations to an elderly dying man and intercedes only to warn him that ‘kindness’ will lead to his death in the prison. Mr. Smith is seen to be a very brave man by the other prisoners for his actions defying the prison guards and is definitely a survivor.

Janusz is taken under the wing of another prisoner, an actor (Mark Strong) who was sent to the Gulag for a performance in a movie (that’s the ultimate criticism I guess). The actor has plans for escape, but it only amounts to lip service. Later, both Mr. Smith and Janusz are sent to the mines (which amounted to a death sentence where the execution would be carried out little by little, and they hatch a plan to leave with a small group that featured an artist, an accountant, a priest and a young Pole suffering from night blindness (which afflicted quite a few prisoners). They figure if they die, it’ll at least be as free men. Before they leave a dangerous Russian criminal (Colin Farrell) talks his way into the group (and partially because he owns a knife, which the group will need to survive). And then the movie REALLY begins.

This cast is an exceptionally good one, starting with the film’s center, Jim Sturgess. I’ve seen him in some good movies, but this may be his best movie to date. I loved the reason that is revealed late as to what kept him (and others) going. He plays one of the rare purely good onscreen protagonists.

Ed Harris is a top talent and has long been one of my favorite actors. He makes any film better. Here, he is the American voice in the coalition of escaped political prisoners. He probably has the ‘character arc’ in the film even though the film isn’t really about him in the end.

There are other valuable supporting roles, also. Colin Farrell  is good as a Russian ‘criminal’ who despite being sent to the Gulag, still loves Stalin. He is the X factor that is in the mix, clearly to provide a sense that he may do something unexpected and detrimental to the group.

Saoirse Ronan plays a young girl and political fugitive that becomes part of the group along the way. Her character may be the most important character (outside of the main protagonist) in the story. Her character has the biggest impact on the aggregation, changing the politics of the fugitives immediately.

She kind of represents a restoration of the prisoners’ humanity. Up until that point it’s all about survival. After that, the forced expedition takes on new meaning in a number of ways.

I’m struggling with some of the European cast. I think it’s Gustaf Skarsgard that played Voss, the Latvian priest. Most of the scenes were dominated by Sturgess, Farrell and Harris, but Skarsgard quietly played an unassuming character that helped to force some of the decisons made by the group with deliberate action. His character makes the decision that changes the dynamic of how the group operated without a word spoken.

And of all the moments of the film I think I liked the short moments where he and Ronan went inside the (forcibly) abandoned Bhudist temple the most, but then my favorite part of Ferris Beuhller’s day off was the scene in the museum where Cameron ends up getting lost in the detail of George Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”.

The movie cinematography is staggering. This is a movie meant for the big screen. This by far, the director’s most spectacularly  shot film to date. The cinematography alone makes the movie an epic film. The story of a handful of individuals is given enormous weight by the visuals. You can almost feel the elements watching it. With the shots of the desert, you realize just how insane their journey is. Just that part alone in the film had me doubting my own ability to have made the trek. My knees would have given out long before any of them do. And I’m pale. Geez. I wouldn’t have lasted an hour.

And it’s not just the scenery. The actors are shot in a way that seems to augment the nature of their journey. The dirt. Their tattered clothes. The wear. The weathered faces. Whoever did the makeup FX to make the actors look like they’ve walked a few thousand miles deserved an award for this.

You really get a sense of the vastness of the world in this. Sometimes the world seems small, but if you have to traverse the Himalayas by foot, it gets a whole lot larger. There are many struggles along the way of the journey and the miraculous nature of their journey is driven home as the group slowly dwindles from dehydration, starvation and the elements, as well as the fortunate encounters  that are unexpected and unlikely. Harrowing and never boring this is an overlooked diamond of a film.

I’m going to have to revise my Best 10 Films of 2010 list. GREAT film!

5 of 5


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