WAY BACK, THE
Captured for alleged spying and anti-Soviet sentiments in occupied Poland, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) ends up in a tough Siberian Gulag in 1940. Driven by the need to return to his wife - who had been tortured to implicate him - he and a motley group of prisoners, including the American Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and Russian crim Valka (Colin Farrell) - make the desperate decision to try and escape. But Siberia is an unforgiving place, especially in winter and their plan to walk to freedom often seems impossible. On the way, they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan) a lone Polish girl hoping to join them. Short of food and water, they walk all the way to Mongolia but discover they need to go even further to reach safety: India, almost 6,500 kms from the Gulag where they started.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The hated, brutal Siberian Gulags of Stalin's Russia were soul destroying and as prison stories go, this one is as dramatic and awful as any. The sheer volume of Stalin's purges is staggering and his barbarity devastating. Peter Weir establishes the hell hole in which young Pole Janusz (Jim Sturgess) finds himself after being falsely accused of spying. The film begins with the circumstances of his interrogation and it sets up a tone of dread.
That scene is the emotional engine that drives Janusz and the film's dramatic arc, but there is a long way between it and the resolution. It's the only real plot point that matters, as we join the escapees on a massive trek across half the world on foot. It's a survival story, even for the audience. But it sprinkled with gentle humour and eye catching images.
Sturgess is credible as Janusz, his Polish accent and his emotional commitment equally valid. Ed Harris does his laconic, internal pain carrying loner with grit. Colin Farrell has the hard part, playing a tattooed rough Russian criminal who admires Stalin and takes every opportunity to impose himself on others.
Saoirse Ronan is effective and engaging as the young Polish woman on the run, capturing our empathy for one of the film's more moving set of relationships and dramatic moments.
Russell Boyd's talents as a cinematographer are so instinctive and natural we don't notice the genius at work, and Burkhard Dallwitz delivers a sparsely but effectively used score full of colour and drama, with some marvellous cues that accompany Boyd's great images (on locations in Morocco and Bulgaria).
It's not the sort of prison escape movie that Hollywood makes these days: it's more subtle, more moody, more restrained and it has no histrionics. The result is a film that avoids the cliches of predictable character types on the journey and shows us that humanity is indeed capable of decency even as it battles to survive.
As for the discovery that Slavomir Rawitz's book was not his own story as he had claimed but that of others, is of little consequence for the audience. The fact that it is indeed based on a true story is of greater importance.
Review by Louise Keller:
The harshness of this extraordinary wartime tale of survival is accentuated in both director Peter Weir's telling of the story and Russell Boyd's discerning cinematography. Adapted from a book called The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, it's a story deserving of a large canvas, yet the film is strangely un-involving much of the time, despite the desperate plight of its protagonists.
It's been seven years since Weir's last film (Master and Commander) and his passion is clearly on display here. Shot in extreme locations in Bulgaria, Morocco and India in the freezing snow, the desert quick-sands and sheer cliffs, dense forests and unforgiving mountains, the story traces the journey of Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish prisoner of war, who walks 4,000 miles (leading a small 'league of nations' group), from the Siberian labour camp to Tibet and India.
The obstacles confronted by Janusz and his companions are numerous and seemingly insurmountable, yet kindness and forgiveness are the keys to his survival. Sturgess delivers an excellent performance. Surprisingly, there is little conversation between the prisoners; it takes the talented Saoirse Ronan's Irena to put a human face on the desperate men. Colin Farrell sheds his Irish brogue and embodies the essence of a tattooed, Stalin-loving criminal, injecting a much needed spark into the early scenes. Likewise, Ed Harris draws us to his Mr Smith, a man clinging to his anonymity as a desperate plea for salvation.
We watch as the group suffers and endures horrific hardships in extreme weather conditions, when food is scarce, the promise of water lies beyond a mirage, and mosquitoes, snakes, wolves and the scorching sun are both foe and salvation. Burkhard Dallwitz's haunting music reinforces the repetitious and never-ending nature of this extreme challenge of human endeavour that ends with an overwhelming flush of emotion.
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WAY BACK, THE (M)
CAST: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Jim Sturgess
PRODUCER: Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin, Nigel Sinclair
DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
SCRIPT: Peter Weir, Keith R. Clarke (book by Slavomir Rawitz)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Russell Boyd
EDITOR: Lee Smith
MUSIC: Burkhard Dallwitz
PRODUCTION DESIGN: John Stoddart
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 24, 2011