In 1941, three men attempt to flee communist Russia, escaping a Siberian gulag. The film tells their story and that of four others who escaped with them and a teenage girl who joins them in flight. The group's natural leader is Janusz, a Pole condemned by accusations secured by torturing his wife, spent much of his youth outdoors, and knows how to live in the wild. They escape under cover of a snowstorm: a cynical American, a Russian thug, a comedic accountant, a pastry chef who draws, a priest, and a Pole with night blindness. They face freezing nights, lack of food and water, mosquitoes, an endless desert, the Himalayas, as well as many moral and ethical dilemmas throughout the journey towards freedom. Written by
<email@example.com>, Shahob, Bellingham, WA, US
Early in the film, as the prisoners are marched up to the front gate of the Gulag prison camp, a slogan written in Russian Cyrillic letters is seen over that gate. It is a slightly shortened variation of a famous propaganda slogan from Communist-era Soviet Union, which translates approximately to "Labor in the USSR is a matter of honour, a matter of valour and heroism." See more »
In the establishing long shot of the woodcutters, many of the prisoners are clearly only pretending to cut the logs, only tapping them with their axes. See more »
An epic, exquisitely shot and harrowing adventure about survival and the pursuit of freedom
So the book has been proved false. Does this mean that the "true story" isn't true after all? There have been many claims by others that it is fact instead of fiction. Whatever - it doesn't matter, Peter Weir's "The Way Back", this movie about that book, which tells the tale of gulag escapees and their harrowing journey to freedom, is a well-told and inspiring tale than anything else.
All of the actors are terrific in their roles - Jim Sturgess as the de- facto leader of the bunch, showing a more improved and mature side to his acting since "21"; Ed Harris as the gruff American Smith, who is hard-edged and iron-willed until he eventually befriends...; Saiorse Ronan as Irene, the runaway girl who joins them on their quest - Ronan here shows a perfect balance of various emotions while not overdoing it like many child stars her age... she definitely is one of the best young actresses today; Colin Farrell as the violent yet humorous soldier who protects the team from danger in Siberia and provides comic relief when needed - Farrell shows that he can be tough yet likable at the same time without being completely overblown and shows his versatility as an actor; European actors Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky and Gustaf Skarsgård round off the remaining escapees and they all acted great in their respective and differing roles. The chemistry between all of the actors at parts are great.
Having said that, the film's only flaw is that it sacrificed substantial characterization for realism and visual spectacles. The characters are thinly but not overly so fleshed out, and the interactions between them are short before the next walking shot. But when it comes to realism and believability the film succeeds. I was surprised when I saw National Geographic was one of the co-producers of the film, but I wasn't as soon as I saw how realistic the depictions of survival the characters did in the film. Men will do anything to escape to freedom, and the determination and spirit to survive in a harsh and unforgiving natural world, is what Weir and his script is trying to say, but the walking parts are written in masterful detail that any line of dialog may ruin it, so silence is sometimes golden in these parts. The screenplay also challenges the usual Hollywood clichés that usually are found in this film genre, and it transforms them into better, more realistic and sometimes unsettling situations.
Production-wise, the film is a triumph. The production design is great and makes extremely well use of real locations. The cinematography by Russell Boyd is dazzling, simply marvelous, it is wide, sweeping and epic, with lush scenery of forests, deserts and the snow-peaked Himalayas exquisitely shot throughout. The wide cinematography makes the experience even more harrowing thanks to Lee Smith's fluid and crisp editing and Burkhard Dallwitz's great music score and terrific music timing - Dallwitz and Weir know when and how music/sound can be used in a scene, and that sometimes, silence is crucial to certain moments. Here, Weir uses that silence to terrific and very intense effect, and with his extremely focused direction, manages to being out a very exhilarating and at the same time excruciating (in a good way) experience. So much so that I forgot about the controversy surrounding the "true story" and found myself hugely engrossed in the movie, not wanting it to end.
In short, the film lightly suffers from lack of proper characterization, but is heavy on almost everything else - acting, directing, cinematography, production value and music. If it had proper characterization, it would have been an instant classic and a contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Still, as it stands, "The Way Back" is still an epic adventure; an inspiring, sometimes funny, and often intense and harrowing experience that also proves that Peter Weir is still an ambitious tour-de-force filmmaker.
Overall rating: 77/100
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