JFC Movie Review: The Way Back

The Way Back (*** / ****)

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan

Director: Peter Weir

Based on Slavomir Rawicz’s memoir “The Long Walk,” The Way Back is rated PG-13 for “depiction of physical hardships.” It makes one wonder what the MPAA was expecting from Peter Weir’s straightforward depiction of a band of fugitives’ arduous four thousand-mile trek on foot from Soviet Russia to British-controlled India.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a young Polish POW arrested on suspicion of spying on the Soviets, according to a written confession signed by his wife against her will. He is then imprisoned in the Siberian Gulag, where chances of survival are just as bleak on the outside as inside. Janusz’s fellow prisoners include Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a reticent, stone-faced American; Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian thug; and Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor who secretly conjures up a plan of escape with Janusz but ultimately elects to stay behind.

Weir cuts to the chase after just enough time spent behind the walls to show viewers the deplorable conditions. Janusz, Mr. Smith, and Valka, along with Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard) and Zoran (Dragos Bucur), sneak out in the middle of a horrific snowstorm, during which Janusz taps into his survival skills and crafts protective face masks out of tree bark. Upon reaching Lake Baikal en route to Mongolia, they cross paths with a young refugee, Irina (Saoirse Ronan). The group is initially hesitant to let her join them for fear that she’ll slow them down, but they eventually relent.

With unapologetically long slogs over sweeping terrains – shot on location in Morocco, India and Bulgaria and backed by Russell Boyd’s impressive cinematography – at times the film resembles a working man’s Lord of the Rings. While such natural beauty is undoubtedly an improvement over imprisonment, it also consistently serves as a reminder of just how alone the fugitives are in a massive world where mother nature is just as threatening as barbed wire, gun towers and political tensions. I almost wished I could go back to chilly Siberia when the picture progressed into the murderous heat of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

Weir avoids any semblance of road-trip camp, and there is no cheap dialogue or action scenes simply for the sake of maintaining viewers’ interest. He immerses us in the group’s hardships as they battle dehydration and near-starvation, as well as the elements; the effects of heatstroke are well-depicted by the makeup department. We also feel the ravishing sensation of cold water cascading down their parched throats when they drink ravenously from a well. Weir’s message is that the escapees’ travels are in no way exciting or glamorous, so why should it be that way for the audience? (The closest we ever get to action is when everyone dives into a gully to avoid a desert sandstorm.) The plot consequently never reaches any serious level of tension, which is often a problem with factual-based films in which the outcome is already established before we set foot into the theater.

Keith Clarke’s script gets off to a slightly rough start due to some hasty introductory scenes inside the prison that attempt to establish the personalities of the main characters. Janusz has a good heart, as he feeds some of his soup to an emaciated inmate. Valka is the tattooed badass who doesn’t think twice about stabbing someone for their sweater. Clarke utilizes any political tension as subtle occasional reminders – such as a brief scene centered around Valka’s chest inking of Stalin and a telltale discovery that Mongolia is under Communist rule – while refraining from repetitive Commies-are-bad grandstanding.

Performances are solid yet jarred by hit-and-miss casting. Sturgess is engaging as Janusz but he never really resonates beyond the amazing opening scene of Janusz’s interrogation by a Soviet officer in front of his tearful wife prior to his imprisonment. Valka has arguably the film’s best line when he quips to a fellow escapee, “I think you like killing; you pray too much for an innocent man.” Aside from that, Farrell is simply miscast as a Russian gangster, with his distinctive countenance, combined with his jarring accent and tattoos, doing him no favors.

Ronan’s Irina is a white elephant that could’ve been omitted from the film entirely and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There is one segment in which Irina admits to Mr. Smith that she lied about her parents being killed by Communist soldiers in hopes that she would be allowed to join the prisoners. Other than that, her presence is unnecessary as she adds nothing else to the plot other than being the token female in the boys’ club.

Only Harris succeeds in swinging for the fences as the world-weary Smith. (“What’s your first name?” an inmate inquires at the beginning. His reply: “Mister.”) Like his co-stars, he hasn’t scads of material at his disposal in the script, but his commanding and stoic presence is such that the camera frequently lingers on his leathery and careworn mask of a face. It’s during his scenes in the desert that Harris truly shines, from Smith silently mourning the loss of a companion to wondering if his fight for freedom is worth the excruciating physical toll he suffers through.

The Way Back is gratifying enough that its flaws leave no long-lasting effect, and it is definitely one of the upper-echelon releases of this still-young 2011. It’s also ironic that this movie, centered around a year-long trudge to liberation, represents the pinnacle of Weir’s own seven-year journey back to the big screen.

To cut a long story short, it is a watchable flick for audiences who are more into action oriented films with a dash of romance and music in it while cyberflix apk has been flooded with requests for this flick time and again, with many people threatening to boycott it altogether if they do not have this film in their list.

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