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April 26, 2011

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DVD of the Week – Review of The Way Back (2010)

by HELEN GEIB

The Way Back is loosely based on the book The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, a loosely-based-on-fact tale of prisoners who escaped from the Siberian Gulag during WWII and trekked many hundreds of miles to reach British territory in the Indian Himalayas. Jim Sturgess as Polish POW Janusz leads the escape attempt; Ed Harris plays Mr. Smith, an American engineer who had been working in Russia before the war; and Colin Farrell is a Russian career criminal who joins in to escape prison debts he can’t pay. The several other political prisoners in the group are played by lesser known actors who hold their own. A luminous Saoirse Ronan completes the principal cast as a forced labor camp runaway who joins them along the way.

It’s a compelling story, the characters are interesting, and the acting is excellent. This is the kind of well-crafted, well-balanced, humanist filmmaking we expect from director Peter Weir, who also co-wrote.

On the last point, the change in title from book to film is significant. Back to what? From where? The obvious reading applies, certainly. Their physical journey is a strong narrative line: from the isolation and agony of forced labor in Siberia; back to the world and all that that implies. However, the characters’ journey from death to life is metaphorical as much as literal. If the film to some extent disappoints as epic adventure, it’s because the filmmakers’ interest is focused elsewhere: in spiritual crisis; emotional trauma and renewal; and more prosaically, small group dynamics. They can’t escape themselves or each other.

Although modestly budgeted by contemporary Hollywood standards, The Way Back boasts a convincing recreation of the Gulag; it’s fascinating in itself, and all the more so for being so seldom depicted in film. The actors get a major assist in portraying their characters’ terrible weariness and deteriorating physical condition from the makeup, which was nominated for an Oscar (losing out to the flashier creature effects of The Wolf Man). The movie was filmed on location in Bulgaria, an effective stand-in for the appalling beauty of the snowbound Siberian forests; Morocco, ditto for the vast Mongolian desert; and India. The location shooting and fine cinematography make an invaluable contribution to the storytelling.

The Way Back is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Extras are a short making of and the trailer.

New releases this week: 3 Idiots


6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken
    May 9 2011

    This looked promising, but I let it slip past. Your review makes me regret that, so this’ll be going into my Netflix queue.

  2. Helen
    May 14 2011

    I wish it had been nurtured on the arthouse circuit instead of being thrown into the multiplex to sink or swim. It needed to play longer than two weeks to give its audience a chance to find it.

  3. May 14 2011

    I finally watched it a couple of nights ago, because in Canada it comes out on Tuesday and loved it. One thing that I noticed about director Peter Weir’s films is that the details when it comes to the realism in them is astonishing. Colin Farrell was my favourite part of the film because it got his character right, 100%. Farrell’s character is an early version of what the Russian mafia, the Vor v Zakone, had eventually become once the USSR became a huge megapower.

    And there’s a good documentary about the Vor v Zakone called Thieves by Law, which is what their Russian name means.

  4. Doc
    May 15 2011

    The Second World War forced many governments into strange alliances, and led their propagandists to ignore, or apologize for, the vicious and appalling behavior of momentary allies. The brief American alliance with Stalin is sadly typical. Some apologists still pretend the Siberian gulag never happened. The film, in carefully understated ways, is a powerful response to that wartime cynicism and postwar blindness. Pay special attention to the Polish characters, whose country courageously resisted both Hitler and Stalin, and whose aspirations ennoble their roles in this great escape.

  5. May 16 2011

    That’s an interesting historical note. I completely agree about the realism. The depiction of (short and brutal) life in the Gulag is horrifying, as it should be. I liked Farrell’s performance too. He had the most colorful character but he didn’t overplay it; it’s a good ensemble picture.

  6. May 17 2011

    The Polish characters’ roles in the drama as political metaphor is an intriguing avenue of analysis. Polish POW Janusz is the group’s spiritual leader and wilderness/survival guide. Ronan’s character, the child of Polish communists living for the Revolution in Moscow until they were arrested in the Stalinist purges of the mid-Thirties, binds the group emotionally by her presence, and by talking to them about themselves and in turn relaying their stories to their comrades.

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