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The Way Back

The Way Back

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

IT’S been seven years since Peter Weir last directed a film, 2003’s Master & Commander, but the wait proves worth it with his absorbing return The Way Back.

Based on Sławomir Rawicz’s memoir The Long Walk, the film follows a group of men who escape a Russian Gulag in 1942 and proceed to make the long walk to freedom from icy Siberia to exotic India… a journey not everyone will survive and which will take them through the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas.

Leading this group is a young man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a former Polish soldier imprisoned for speaking to German soldiers following coerced but incriminating evidence delivered by his wife. Joining him are the likes of an American named Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and a knife-wielding Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell).

En route, they also reluctantly pick up a Polish orphan (Saiorse Ronan), who brings out paternal qualities among them.

Admittedly, there are times when Weir’s film feels like a test of endurance by virtue of the very fact it’s a movie about people walking.

The validity of original author Rwaicz’s claims has also been called into question, especially given evidence that while a walk took place, it may not have been by him.

Weir takes both criticisms in his stride, however, responding to the latter by revealing that while the book may be called into question, many of the events and characters he puts on screen are based on real people he interviewed during the course of his extensive research.

In regard to the former, meanwhile, Weir compensates for long periods of inaction by making strong use of his spectacular landscapes as well as playing to the strengths of his cast.

In that regard, Sturgess, Harris and Farrell all stand out, with the latter especially bringing depth, humour and even sympathy to a character who may – in the wrong hands – have been easy to label as comic relief or OTT.

Sturgess, meanwhile, injects a believable everyman quality to his reluctant leader, imbuing him with decency and determination, while Harris brings warmth and mystery to his American. And for anyone wondering why an American made it to the Gulags, it is a little known historical fact that over 7,000 did so having gone to Russia in search of jobs that were advertised in US papers during The Great Depression.

Weir, meanwhile, deserves credit for his attention to detail which is never more apparent than during the early scenes inside the Gulag, which have been meticulously recreated for maximum authenticity (and which also feature more memorable work from Mark Strong).

The Way Back is therefore further example of a masterful director at work, which combines genuine spectacle with emotional triumph of the human spirit elements as only Weir knows how. Let’s hope it’s not another seven years before the director’s next work appears.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 133mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 9, 2011