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The Way Back review

REVIEWS - MOVIES

Peter Weir returns to the director's chair after seven years for a tale of escape from Soviet oppression...

Peter Weir's 'The Way Back' (2010)

Seven years after directing Russell Crowe in Master and Commander, acclaimed director Peter Weir (The Truman Show) has retaken his place behind the camera for a dramatic journey of survival from within the Soviet Union's iron curtain.

Co-written with executive producer Keith Clarke, The Way Back, loosely based on a prominent memoir by Slavomir Rawicz, sketches the escape from a Siberian gulag by a gang of prisoners under the cover of a blizzard. The snow masks not only their disappearance, but also the personal wounds they each carrying courtesy of Communist authorities under Stalin’s Reign of Terror.

Led by kind-hearted former cavalry officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess), the motley gang includes his fellow Poles Tamasz (Alexandru Potocean) and Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), the American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), the Latvian Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), and the comedian of the group, Zoran (Dragos Bucur). Tagging along, knife firmly in hand, is the murderous, debt-ridden criminal Valka (Colin Farrell), a member of the Urki street gang.

Combining their various talents, they set out in reach of the nearest border with limited supplies, and only Valka's knife for protection against both the elements and any human foe they may encounter. Along the way they are tested to the limits of human endurance.

As you would expect with such a high quality cast, the acting matches the intensity of the story. The accents, particularly Farrell's, are spot on, whilst Ed Harris' gradual mental and physical disintegration is the highlight in a film that pulls off difficult subject matter with aplomb but struggles to pay off in full the emotional investment it demands.

After years of development and pre-production issues - the book was optioned numerous times with frequent rewrites before Weir became attached - there are two journeys facing us on the screen. The first is a physical and mental battle, whilst the second, and arguably more important of the two, is of morality in a time where horrendous atrocities were regularly committed without forethought. It is during the latter where Farrell comes into his own; playing the villain, he takes a practical, singular approach to life in marked contrast to the others, who seem to gain strength from grouping themselves as the force of good. This struggle is exacerbated when they meet another traveller who seems just as interested in where they came from as where they are about to go.

A well-paced, wonderfully shot picture. Weir successfully captures the introverted, damaged personalities of the captives, but at the cost of a lack of sentiment and, at times, drama which is hard to sustain given the length of the film. A promising performance by Sturgess, with great support from Harris and Farrell. This is not Weir’s best, but it’s a worthwhile effort.

3 stars

The Way Back opens in the UK on December 26th


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