HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Monday, April 11, 2011

THE WAY BACK -- DVD review by porfle

As the spoiler-ish foreword tells us, three men crossed the Himalayas into India on foot in 1941, having trekked 4,000 miles after their escape from a Siberian gulag.  Peter Weir's THE WAY BACK (2010), based on a true story (which, unfortunately, has since been debunked), takes us every grueling step of the way. 

The story opens after Germany and the Soviet Union have invaded Poland in 1939 and divided the country between them, with our main character Janusz (Jim Sturgess) being branded a spy when his own wife is tortured into falsely testifying against him.  He ends up in that horribly bleak gulag with many other political prisoners and the harsh Siberian surroundings serving as an effective escape deterrent.

But escape he does, along with a grizzled American known only as Mister Smith (Ed Harris), a violent street thug named Valka (Colin Ferrell), Tomasz the mild-mannered cook and sketch artist (Alexandru Potocean), light-hearted accountant Zoran (Dragos Bucur), and Voss, a former priest haunted by his past (Gustaf Skarsgård).  Along their perilous trek to freedom they pick up a runaway Polish girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT, DEATH DEFYING ACTS), on her own after her parents were executed.

The early part of the film gives us a glimpse of how bleak, hopeless, and cheap life in a gulag was, with the inmates barely kept alive only to serve as slave labor.  Janusz' decency is shown when he shares his food with a starving man; the more pragmatic Smith warns him that such kindness can be fatal, although he himself will come to depend on it in the long run.  Janusz also proves himself a leader others are willing to follow when they join him in a daring impromptu escape.

Getting out seems easy enough, mainly because the guards don't expect anyone to be crazy enough to go running off into the Siberian wilderness in the middle of a snowstorm.  This is just the beginning of the arduous journey both the characters and the viewer must now undertake for the rest of the film.  With locations in Bulgaria and Morocco standing in for Russia and Mongolia, we watch them suffer step by painful step through the worst extremes of bitter cold and blistering heat.

Character development is slim in the beginning, and it isn't until Irena joins the group and starts digging into the pasts of her walking companions that we learn more about them.  Weir takes his time but eventually we get to know these guys well enough to become invested in what happens to them, although only a few of them are fleshed out enough for us to truly care.  The sweet and innocent Irena slowly reawakens the humanity in the gruff Mister Smith while helping Voss come to terms with his hidden guilt, and her presence eventually brings out the best in the rest of them as well.

It isn't until much later that we find out what drives Janusz to keep pushing himself and the others forward when all hope seems lost.  His quest becomes the heart of the journey and is given a poignant resolution at the film's end, although this scene, while reasonably cathartic, doesn't quite pluck the heartstrings as keenly as it could have. 

The film does, however, contain scenes of genuine emotional power along the way, which are effective in great part by their restraint.  While the backdrops are consistently epic in scope, director Weir (THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, THE TRUMAN SHOW) keeps things focused on the intimate human story.  One death scene in particular--and there are several, as the core group gets whittled down by the elements--is almost ethereal in its bittersweet beauty.

Sturgess holds it all together as Janusz, convincing in his grim determination to survive and keep his companions from giving up when all seems hopeless.  Harris' Mister Smith becomes a more compelling character the more we learn about him, while Saoirse Ronan is utterly winning as Irena. 

Also turning in a fine performance is Colin Ferrell as the "feral" Valka, whom we somehow come to like despite the fact that he's a ruthless scoundrel who's not above contemplating cannibalism when the food rations run out.  I like the way his character comes to admire Janusz for his practical knowledge and resourcefulness, eventually dubbing him "Pakhan", a term used to describe a respected leader in Valka's criminal fraternity.  I've always liked Ferrell in spite of the flack he seems to get for whatever reasons, and he plays this role to the hilt.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  Extras include a 30-minute "making of" featurette and a trailer.

While not as emotionally overwhelming as it might have been, THE WAY BACK maintains our interest throughout its lengthy running time by telling a story of simple compassion in a time of barbarism, and the human spirit triumphing against great odds.  The settings may look epic, but instead of hosting vast hordes of clashing armies, these panoramic vistas contain only the tiny figures of a few people trying to stay alive long enough to find freedom and, in some cases, redeem themselves.

Buy it at

No comments: