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The Way Back
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The Way Back – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1939, an alleged Polish spy, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), is denounced by his wife and sentenced to 20 years hard time in a remote Siberian gulag, which is not only guarded by guns, dogs and fences, but also by frozen landscapes and bear- infested forests, and hosts Russia’s most brutal criminals. Life in the gulag is harsh, unpredictable and dangerous. In fact, chances of survival inside are as bad as escaping into the outside. Hence Janusz decides to escape and go back to his
wife.

After six months of planning and storing provisions, Janusz and half a dozen other multinational prisoners make a break for it during a blizzard. The prison guards give chase, but give up quickly. They probably know that surviving that blizzard is humanly impossible.

Among his accomplices are an American POW, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), and a brutal Russian mobster, Valka (Colin Farrell), who imposes himself on the group, fearing for his life inside the prison from other criminals. Valka abandons the group at the Mongolian-Russian border, and turns back into his beloved Russia. Later, a parentless Polish girl, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), joins them.

The arduous journey takes the group though Siberia’s frozen forests, a mosquito-infested lake, the Great Wall of China, the Gobi desert of Tibet and the mountains of the Himalayas. They endure freezing blizzards, scorching heat, crippling diseases, dehydration, hypothermia and starvation.

Eventually, only 3 of them survive the journey to British India.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

“The Way Back” is based on Slavomir Rawicz book “The Long Walk”, which
chronicles the author’s escape with other inmates from a Russian Gulag to British India in 1939. His story, however, have been disputed by writers and diplomats and accused of being untrue.

Due to the controversies surrounding the authenticity of the story, the director, Peter Weir, took the liberty to fictionalise most of it and imbue it with his own survival experiences. Frankly, the core problem in this movie lies in its execution, not in the veracity of its tale.

The film focuses on the men’s journey and their battle against the elements of nature, but fails to explore the psychology of these characters and convince us of their motives. Consequently, real as their suffering was and harrowing as was their journey, we end up caring neither for them, nor for their journey. Most the revelations about the characters don’t emerge from conflicts amongst them or even with nature, but mainly from expositional dialogue, which ultimately renders them boring and uninteresting.

Valka, who is brilliantly played by Coin Farrell, is undoubtedly the most interesting character, for he is morally conflicted, dangerously unpredictable and entertainingly humorous. Alas, he is completely wasted, and just as we begin to connect with him, he leaves in the first third of the movie, pathetically declaring his love to Stalin and so being unable to leave Russia. Where did that come from?

At the beginning of the movie we see these guys trading their food for a drawing of a naked woman, yet when they encounter a beautiful young Polish girl in the wood, they universally treat her with attentive care as if she were their sister, not even Valka makes any lewd moves on her. Suddenly, the horny prisoners are acting like monks, so yet again we miss an opportunity to stir conflicts among these characters that could’ve revealed their different personalities to us.

These oddities litter the 2-hours, linear film. Sometimes, the director contrives to inject some suspense by making the characters fret every time they see a creature, fearing it would be a communist, but we never get to see those mysterious communists. As a result the suspense falls flat.

Having said all the above, the film offers stunning imagery on an epic scale of the snowy wastes of Siberia, the rippling vastness of the Gobi desert and the majestic heights of the Himalayas. The blinding blizzards, although shot in a studio, are so unflinchingly realistic that you instinctively try to take cover in your seat. The long shots of the desolate, dry desert makes you long for a drink.

Unfortunately, the spectacles in “The Way Back” are not matched by personal intensity. Hence it feels more like a discovery Channel documentary rather than a dramatic movie.

Opens nationwide 26th December 2010

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