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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 12.5%
Average: 6.25%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 6.25%

2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Way Back, The (2011)
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by Jay Seaver

"A movie of scale."
5 stars

In a more just cinematic world, "The Way Back" would be playing on IMAX screens and "The Green Hornet" would not. This is not a comment on the quality of Michel Gondry's film versus that of Peter Weir's, simply an observation that "The Way Back" aims to transport the audience to a different environment above all else, and that's what a screen that extends to the limits of one's peripheral vision does best. So, it goes without saying, this merits a look in theaters before it is reduced to home video.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is Polish, a difficult thing to be in 1939, as Hitler is approaching from one side and Stalin from the other. Winding up on the Russian side of the line, he is accused of being a spy and shipped off to a Siberian gulag. There, he immediately begins to plan his escape alongside several other political prisoners - among them Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean) and Zoran (Dragos Bucur), a pair of fellow Poles; Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor imprisoned for a role he once played; and Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American engineer. A late addition to their party is Valka (Colin Farrell), a murderer fleeing the debts he racked up in camp. And then there's Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl they meet along the way south to Mongolia who claims to have escaped from a collective farm. Any pursuers or potential traitors in their party pale in danger to the elements, though - Janusz is the only one with particularly well-honed wilderness skills, and prisons are located in Siberia because the environment is a better deterrent to escape than the guards.

The Way Back has a plot, and some nice performances, but this is a movie about scale - Weir and company aim to demonstrate how impressive the accomplishment of the survivors is with wide shots of inhospitable environments, whether they be tundra, desert, or mountain. Against these backdrops of terrible natural beauty, the escapees are often tiny, underscoring the immensity of their challenge. Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd compose these shots beautifully, and while the film isn't entirely about showing off shots of harsh environments, or even contrasting them with the tight, oppressive scenes of the gulag, they are the centerpiece, and are suitably impressive.

The story that moves us between these places is admittedly not elaborate; there is a fair amount of talk about how it is better to die a free man than live in a cage, and the characters' stories are mostly anecdotes pulled out as they begin to trust each other. Some may find that a negative; but there is a beautiful simplicity to it: This is a movie about doing a difficult thing, but it is neither a tuitorial nor a metaphor for the characters' moral worth. There are interesting story arcs for some characters, and others who wind up blandly interchangeable, but Weir and co-writer Keith R. Clarke studiously avoid melodrama - this situation is too perilous for bickering and grudges.

This kind of situations can lead to actors doing fine work, though, as they can build a character and his personality without worrying about every little twitch serving a plot. Mister Smith, for instance, is inevitably going to be gruff and embittered; it's the details of how Ed Harris shows that which make him interesting to watch. Jim Sturgess, after a wrenching introduction, often looks like he's going to fade into the background with the other bland characters; it's not until later that the audience realizes that they're seeing natural leadership and quiet, driving passion. Saoirse Ronan adds another impressive performance to a list that is already formidable for one so young; Irena works no matter what her story is, and the shifts never seem contrived. And Colin Farrell gives us a simple-minded thug who is nevertheless an interesting character, an individual despite potentially coming out of central casting.

"The Way Back" is not a complicated movie, but it's a beautiful one, and one that earns its emotional response honestly, if simply. Its impact will likely still be felt when it makes its way to the small screen, but it should definitely be seen large as life while it can be.

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originally posted: 01/26/11 02:17:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2010 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/16/11 mr.mike Amid sweeping vistas lies nothing we have'nt seen before. 3 stars
2/24/11 vadermccandless I LOVE Peter Weir, but I've heard this is pretty generic. Still need to check it out 4 stars
1/24/11 bill norris never felt more tired, did they walk to 1 end of the screen & just turn around? 1 stars
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  21-Jan-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 19-Apr-2011

  26-Dec-2010 (12A)

  DVD: 19-Apr-2011

Directed by
  Peter Weir

Written by
  Peter Weir

  Colin Farrell
  Ed Harris
  Saoirse Ronan
  Mark Strong
  Jim Sturgess

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