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, but also talented, actors. 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, and 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. But the characters’ journey from death to life is metaphorical as much as literal. If the film to some extent disappoints as epic adventure, it is because the filmmaking interest is 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 re-creation 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.
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