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This was a long film but I was unaware of the length because I was so thoroughly engrossed. The scenery and the photography were simply spell binding but more than that, this was a story about the indomitable spirit of people faced with desperate odds told with sensitivity and at times, humour. Others have commented on the quality of the acting, the accuracy of the story and the cinema-photography; I want to comment on a different aspect of the film. We hear and see a great deal about the crimes of the Nazis during this period but very little about the crimes of the Soviet system. This film is not a "dull metaphor" of the Cold War as one reviewer has said If this films sparks a little enquiry amongst its audiences it will have done a great service to the memory of Poles and other eastern Europeans who suffered the double tragedy of Nazi and then Communist occupation. When Nazism was defeated in 1945, half of Europe was just beginning a sentence in Communist bondage that was to last another thirty five years. This aspect of the story is all the more effective because it is told through the eyes of a small group of people and at a personal level. At the end of this film, the entire audience sat still for about fifteen seconds. There was not the usual end of film scrum. People just needed a moment to absorb what they had sen. This was the best film of the year!
I went with my friends to see this the other day - we picked whatever
film was on soonest at the cinema. The Way Back was on...and we went
in. I had no idea what the film was about only that I'd heard that
"People walk out of Russia".
This film really had you captivated for the entire journey - and you really connect with the characters within it, so much so you experience their emotions with them - you laugh with them, you are on the verge of tears at moments, and you feel their determination.
The acting was great - there were some familiar faces in the likes of Jim Sturgess (21) and Ed Harris (everything else)...and they do very well in their roles. Colin Farrell finds himself taking a respectable role in a respectable film - and does a very good job at it - and even manages to work a Russian accent, which he pulls off - and he pulls it off well. Surprisingly well, actually! Saoirse Ronan, at 15/16, is incredible in this. Given her youth, she manages to draw in the audience with her character's history and gravitas. The other actors within this, despite them being relatively unknown on the Hollywood stage, join the cast well, and the chemistry is there to make the journey and the true stamina of the group believable.
The cinematography was immense, with shots overlooking parts of Russia, Mongolia, Tibet, and India - just helps you realise the vastness of the journey. Most of the journey is filmed looking closely at the characters, but this is what is crucial to the audience enjoying the story. You can't have 2hrs and 13 mins of beautiful scenery and see the intimate struggles with each of the characters...therefore the director does well to mix the two. The audience can see just what the struggles and difficulties are...but are treated to some amazing shots of the scenery, which make you realise how incredible this journey was. (I even got a map out later and routed the journey they took)
I should expect that this film would receive some Oscar nominations, maybe for cinematography, director, perhaps even best picture, but I would love to see Jim Sturgess having a nomination for his role.
Peter Weir's follow-up to Master & Commander (2003) is the unflinching,
stark, & brilliant The Way Back, which takes on the weighty theme of
man's struggle for freedom.
At the dawn of WWII, several men escape from a Russian gulag. The film details their perilous & uncertain journey to freedom, as they cross deserts, mountains, & several nations.
The cast is a clever mix of seasoned pros & relative newcomers. Ed Harris, in the role of the sole American, lends his usual gravitas. Colin Farrell borrows from his In Bruges character, but the addition of bad jailhouse tattoos is wildly amusing, & his Russian is quite passable. It's always nice to see Mister Farrell doing serious work, rather than bland fluff like Miami Vice or SWAT. Mark Strong's brief, but plot-essential appearance is joyous.
Jim Sturgess gets a chance to redeem himself from the disastrous flop 21, & does a fine job here, as the central character. & the adolescent Saoirse Ronan belies her extensive & impressive resume with an understated performance that sparkles against the men's terse asperity.
Breathtaking vistas that serve as the backdrop to the cast's efforts lend The Way Back an epic feel, echoed by mature editing, & mavellously restrained use of music.
This is, quite possibly, the most serious film Peter Weir has ever directed, & the result is both thought-provoking & inspiring. We can only hope that it gets a proper release, & is allowed an opportunity to reach its grown-up audience.
Anyone familiar with Peter Weir's incredible body of work -
particularly his earlier Australian-produced movies - knows that a new
Weir movie is an important event indeed. Almost all Weir's
too-infrequent movies are at least noteworthy (Witness, Dead Poets
Society) if not downright great (Year of Living Dangerously, The Last
With The Way Back, Weir may have made his greatest film ever. An epic and unrushed (2 1/4 hours) trek from a Soviet Gulag to the green hills of India, this is a beautifully filmed and superbly acted piece. Let it take its time; it is thrilling and appalling, but also beautiful.
The story, which Weir apparently has long wanted to film, is based on the account of a Polish army officer who later moved to England and wrote (with a ghost-writer) the book "The Long Walk," describing the journey he took with seven others. The movie is quite true to the book, right down to the American "Mr. Smith," Ed Harris' character. While the veracity of the story in the book has been questioned, that doesn't interfere with the great film-making.
Harris is fine as always, as is Colin Farrell as a Russian thug, but it is Jim Sturgess, as the Polish leader of the expedition, who has the most bravura performance.
Bravo to the cast, cinematographer, and most of all, Mr. Weir.
This is a film for people who appreciate epic landscapes and survivor
stories. It has some engaging characters but not brilliant dialogue or
complicated characters. Mostly, it is a visual film, displaying the
vulnerability of a few people in a harsh, vast, beautiful landscape.
They must depend on each other, and they develop an intimacy based on
their shared struggle rather than on deep conversations and emotional
revelations, or at least, not until a young girl joins them. Weir seems
to be commenting on the yin yang of masculinity/femininity at times in
this film. I also liked the subtle underlying commentary on the brutal
oppression of the Soviet regime under Stalin.
All of the actors were good; Farrell adds a touch of humor, Sturgess portrays anguish well, and Harris is a good tough old guy--his usual persona. By the way, Manohla Dargis in The New York Times complains that Farrell is too good-looking to be a Russian gangster. What this assessment is based on I can't imagine; doubt Dargis hangs with Russian gangsters.
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
Six-time Academy Award nominated director Peter Weir ("Master and
Commander: The Far Side of the World", "The Truman Show") directed and
wrote the adaptive screenplay for "The Way Back" based on the book "The
Long Walk: A True Story of a Trek to Freedom" by Slawomir Rawicz, a
Polish POW from the Soviet Gulag where the story begins, and on real
life accounts of the journey. The film unluckily missed a very well
deserved 2010 Oscar birth telling the tale about an unthinkable journey
of kinship created between a diverse group of Soviet Gulag escapees.
Their journey covers 4,000 miles from Siberia to freedom in India
giving meaning to the word incredible. The cinematography is used most
majestically by capturing panoramas of the strikingly dangerous yet
breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. The splendor of the film goes
beyond the wilderness with the selection of a very accurate and diverse
cast starring Jim Sturgess ("21"), Ed Harris ("The Rock"), Colin Farrel
("In Bruges"), Saoirse Ronan ("The Lovely Bones"), and Mark Strong
("Sherlock Holmes"). Together they recreate the peril and wonder of the
impossible journey on foot that started with the idea of a man named
Khabrov (Strong) to break out of the Godforsaken Soviet Gulag in
Siberia. A Polish man named Janusz, driven by the fire to get back to
his wife, puts the idea into action. An older, wise American known as
Mr. Smith (Harris) joins ranks when he hears about Janusz's plans and
warns him that Khabarov never had any aspiration to actually leave the
place. However, the idea becomes a reality attracting an indebt
prisoner named Valka (Farrel) and four other men escaping the Gulag and
meeting a young girl named Irena (Ronan) on the path to freedom.
The story is synonymous with walking more than a marathon every day through harsh terrain, uncontrollable elements and lack of food and water for an open-ended amount of time. The gravity of the story is unmatched by any film released this year; told through the art of cinematography and the acting talents of the cast. Both Oscar worthy aspects of the film, however, the cinematography itself is unmatched by any 2010 film. Also, a lot can be said about the all-star cast concerning Jim Sturges, Ed Harris, Colin Farrel, Mark Strong, and Saoirse Ronan and their superb character portrayals; however, there is one other actor that stands out. A man in the group named Zoran played by Dragos Bucar is able to break through the thin layer of dramatic tension in the film with his clever social humor. The comedy he creates does not take away from the story and instead adds to the story allowing the characters to unwind and have a good time.
The outcomes to films within the "jailbreak" genre are inevitably easy to predict, therefore, causing films like "The Way Back" to work hard in order to be original. "The Way Back" does a very good job by differentiating the way it is captured on film through its beautiful cinematography; however, great films such as "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Great Escape" will always be on top of the genre. "The Way Back" isn't far off though with its main shortcoming stemming from the ending relying on a storyline tangent not fully developed (not the montage, the montage is great).
This is the most underrated movie of 2010 with its limited advertising exposure, release and lack of award fulfillment with only one Oscar nomination for Best Make Up (well deserved as the group of survivors' skin is torn apart by the elements). A 4,000-mile true story taking place in the World War II era with excellent cinematography and great acting seems like the ideal candidate for the Oscars. So why was this must see film left in the shadows?
This film tells two stories. The literal one involves a group of Gulag
escapees that cross the whole Eurasian continent in order to escape
from Russian oppression.
The scenery is amazing, the acting is solid, but, as it has already been noted in other reviews, the action isn't driven by dialogue. At first glance it could seem that some of the characters lack depth, it could seem that the supporting characters lack complexity and history that is so needed for emotional attachment.
But to achieve full understanding of the film, some knowledge of the history of Europe is mandatory. When the metaphor provided by the literal storyline is understood, the characters light up in a completely different light. Suddenly the unrealistically long and hazardous trip takes the revealing shape of the 50-year-long European genocide, repressions, suffering and struggle for independence; a struggle that has been wrongfully forgotten by many in the West.
Thank you for telling our story.
The story of a small group of people escaping from a Siberian Soviet
prison, part of the "Gulag" in wartime and walking 4000 miles to
freedom looked a trifle grim in the trailer, but Peter Weir has managed
to produce a rather beautiful film out of it, using Bulgaria and
Morocco as locales rather than Siberia and the Gobi desert. Only
Darjeeling in India plays itself. My only trouble with it is the rather
uneven character development. The story lends itself to ensemble
playing but we learn little about two or three of the walkers. In the
case of the lead character Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who is the source of
the story this is explicable as we are seeing the others though his
eyes, but it has to be said that both "Mr Smith" (the excellent Ed
Harris) and the Girl (Saiorse Ronan) leave a lasting impression.
I know there is some doubt as to the authenticity of the story, taken from a 1955 book by Slavimir Rawicz a former Polish army officer, and indeed what the group are supposed to have done looks impossible but that's not a problem, because the relationships ring true. It is remarkable how an almost random collection of individuals, including one with a very unsavoury past, can, driven by sheer necessity, wind up functioning as a team. Partly this is due to the leader actually having some navigational knowledge and therefore inspiring confidence in the others. Mr Smith remarks early on that the Janusz has a serious weakness; he is kind, but when the chips are down we see that even the hard-bitten Mr Smith is capable of compassion.
Strangely enough, after the initial scenes in the prison camp, and the escape, there is not a lot of drama. The group encounter very few people on their travels and those they do meet take little interest in them (perhaps they had not heard about the bounty for escapees). Obtaining food and water is obviously a big issue, so mind out for the messy hunting scenes. I was astounded at how well their footwear stood up to the punishment; my hiking boots are not good for 400 miles let alone 4000. Actually they must have wandered around a bit - the northern end of Lake Baikal and Lhasa in Tibet are about 1800 miles apart, though the prison camp was somewhere north of the lake. It's also not clear how long the walk took, but at times it seemed like years. Weir's great achievement is to keep us watching a very drawn out tale. Personally I think I would have died of boredom if I had been in this particular walk, if starvation hadn't got me first.
Peter Weir's first film in seven years is another exercise in sturdy
direction with strong social themes running through it - recalling many
of his previous works in style and content. It follows a group of
escaped prisoners from a Siberian gulag in 1940 as they brave the
treacherous wilderness of Asia for freedom from the Soviet regime. It's
tough viewing for the most part but there is a surprising amount of
comic relief along the way, provided chiefly by Colin Farrell's salty
character. The group scavenge for food, even fighting off wolves for
the carcass of an animal at one point - but the constant bickering and
relentless doom and gloom does begin to wear. The film picks up however
once Saoirse Ronan enters the picture and her youthful feminine
presence brings an interesting dynamic. Emoting with a flawless Polish
accent (almost like a mini-Streep) her character is one of the more
compelling and layered and gives this emerging young actress a chance
to display her skills. The cinematography is serviceable but hardly
spectacular - capturing a harsh, arid landscape as opposed to
Malick-like celebration of nature.
As the film wears on, the struggle to survive intensifies, particular when they reach the Ghobi desert - the scenes are very well done but viewing becomes quite grueling. Harris bring a certain integrity to his role in a rather unshowy performance with not much character introspection (I can see why his Oscar buzz has disappeared). In fact character development across the board is quite lacking, and watching the plot unfold, with the knowledge of the outcome of the story already provided in the opening titles - the narrative becomes quite arbitrary and the story doesn't always sustain interest. The final leg of the journey through the Himalayas almost seems rushed compared to the bloated second act. Still, it's a very well-made film with good acting and visuals - just don't expect to be inspired.
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