Writer/director Peter Weir’s war drama “The Way Back” is an extremely exhausting piece of cinema.
And while that may sound like a bad thing, it is actually the greatest praise imaginable for a film chronicling the escape of a small group of multi-national prisoners from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and their life-affirming journey over thousands of miles across five hostile countries.
“The Way Back” shows viewers the catastrophically cruel conditions prisoners suffered before subjecting them to the exasperating expedition said prisoners endured for only the hope of freedom. It is an emotionally draining experience, to say the least, but the eventual moment of triumph is well worth it.
Jim Sturgess plays a Polish POW named Janusz who arrives at a camp in Siberia after his wife is forced to sign a statement accusing him of criticizing the Communist party and acting as a spy for foreign powers.
Janusz meets several other prisoners in the camp with similar stories, including a Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell), an older American known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and an actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong). Khabarov, in particular, has a plan to escape the gulag.
When Janusz actually decides to implement the escape during a blinding snowstorm, Khabarov backs out. However, Valka, Mr. Smith and four other prisoners agree to accompany Janusz. And they elude the guards’ capture without much problem at all.
But escaping the camp is one thing while walking southwards across snow and sand without a steady source of food or water is another thing altogether. Needless to say, not everyone survives the trip. Although, as Sturgess’s character says, at least the unlucky ones die free men.
Aside from Sturgess, Farrell, Harris and Saoirse Ronan, who shows up about midway through as yet another escapee, the cast is made up of relatively unknown actors. And, whether you like it or not, your attention remains on the identifiable members of the group, which is sort of a weakness as the story moves forward.
To make matters worse, Sturgess and Farrell have pretty good Polish and Russian accents, respectively. It is not always an easy task to determine exactly what they are saying. That is unfortunate because the screenplay, which Weir co-wrote with Keith Clarke, is quite compelling.
On the other hand, these are merely observational disadvantages and not really to the fault of “The Way Back.” Rather, the movie, which was inspired by real events, is an exceptional piece of historical entertainment, complete with fine performances from the four identifiable actors.
Weir’s ability to relay such an epic trek over the course of one film without losing the emotion that pulls it all together is astounding. “The Way Back” encourages us with tremendous depth and inspiring zeal to, regardless of our particular circumstances, just keep walking.
“The Way Back” (PG-13 – 133 minutes) is now playing at movie theaters throughout the Valley. Visit NCM.com for specific showtimes and locations.
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