Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan
I knew very little about The Way Back when it suddenly popped up at cinemas here. I read one online review that gave it a lot of credit, so I knew I had to give it a shot.
The Way Back is set during World War II, where Poland has been invaded by Hitler on the west side and Stalin on the east side. We are introduced to a man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess), who is imprisoned by the Russians after refusing to sign a statement that confesses he was a spy.
He is sent to Siberia, an unforgiving prison where the guards and barbed fences aren't the real enemy, but the cold weather and endless forests beyond it are. Once there, he meets a few prisoners of interest: Mr Smith (Ed Harris), an American and Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian who is in prison for murder.
With the encouragement of fellow prisoner Khabarov (Mark Strong), Janusz makes a plan to escape. He takes Smith, Valka and four other men past the perimeter and through the unforgiving blizzard. They plan on heading to a country that isn't rife with communism, so they decide to go south. Along the way, they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl also running from the Russians.
This story, which is supposedly based on real events, depicts their escape and eventual long and arduous walk from Siberia, across the Gobi desert, through the Himalayas and finally arriving in India. And yes, it is a long journey, but well worth it even for us viewers.
Peter Weir is known for making critically acclaimed films like Dead Poets Society, Witness and Master & Commander, and here he does it again. The Way Back takes a realistic look at the harrowing journey of these survivors across the worst of terrains, with very little food and water and the most extreme of weather conditions. It makes your heart break watching them suffer, and Weir deserves plenty of credit for his direction. Credit must also be given to Russell Boyd for his great camerawork. The shots of the vast landscape that appears to have no end, the scorching desert, the wide Lake Baikal that they have to walk past and the forests they tread through...all excellently done.
Jim Sturgess, who hasn't been in a real hit film since he began, does splendidly as Janusz here. He is very believable as the unlikely guide to lead the survivors to freedom, even as he himself suffered so much. Ed Harris lends his screen presence effectively too as the hardened Smith. Colin Farrell does a good job as the ruthless Valka, and though I can't quite accept him as a Russian (probably because I've seen him play normal English speaking characters too many times), he can do no wrong here. Saoirse Ronan is also effective as Irena, and though she may seem precocious at times, her character will grow on you. Not to be forgotten are Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean and Gustaf Skarsgard who play three of the other survivors, Zoran, Tomasz and Voss.
Overall, this film is truly fascinating and at the same time emotionally draining, but worth the journey. It may seem a bit too long for my taste at times, but the fine performances and great execution by Weir makes this a winner. (3.5/5)