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The Way Back
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367 of 378 people found the following review helpful
"The Way Back" is a masterpiece, a must-see film for thinking people and for lovers of cinema as a serious art form. I was on the edge of my seat through the entire film, and was stifling tears. I could not resist applauding at the end. I couldn't wait to discuss it with friends. Several hours after I left the theater, I kept seeing everything - a meaty sandwich, clean water flowing from the tap - through the prism of "The Way Back." I'm a long-time fan of director Peter Weir, who gave us classics like "Picnic at Hanging Rock," "Witness" and "The Year of Living Dangerously." Weir has outdone himself.

"The Way Back" depicts a long walk that Gulag escapees took from Siberia to India. I've been lucky enough, under luckier circumstances, to travel some of the world the film references, from Poland to the Himalaya. The film's authenticity in language, costume, even hairstyles, swept me up into its world.

Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia attacked Poland in September, 1939, thus beginning World War Two. At first, the Communists killed and deported more people even than the genocidal Nazis. Over a million Poles were deported in cattle cars. Many died; many never returned. No one knows exact numbers. Many struggled to return home, traveling on foot through Eurasia, making shorter treks comparable to that depicted in "The Way Back;" I've met such people.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a young Pole falsely accused by Soviets. His wife is tortured to force a confession. Without ceremony, he is shipped to hellish Siberian concentration camps and mines. Janusz determines to escape, with a ragtag, multilingual crew of followers.

Janusz is not particularly handsome, or muscular, or super intelligent. He doesn't have a commanding voice or swagger. His potentially fatal flaw, in this environment, is kindness. Jim Sturgess' Janusz is one of the best aspects of the film. In real life, true leaders usually are not like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Janusz grew up in the woods, and knows how to jerry-rig a compass to point his group south, and a mask to survive blizzards. In the world of Gulag escapees, that's enough to make him the big man. Indeed, Valka, (Colin Farrell), a very tough gangster, declares, or diagnoses, that Janusz is the leader, the man whom the other escapees must obey, both for their own individual benefit and the benefit of group survival.

Prison escapees traveling thousands of miles of the Eurasian landmass with minimal gear face multiple dangers, from malnutrition-caused blindness to mosquitoes to snakes to dehydration. Some succumb, and die en route. You can't help but bet the same horrible game of chance that Valka proposes: who will die next? And will his meat be tender - that is, will we resort to cannibalism? A crew member falls. Surviving companions, in stunning testimony to their own humanity, take the time, burn the calories, devote the effort, to fashioning makeshift graves, and funerals. And then they march on.

What looks very beautiful on a calendar - an unspoiled mountain forest of snow-dusted evergreens - is actually all but an execution chamber for a hungry fugitive with no tools and only rags for shoes. The last thing a good man sees after making the simple mistake of walking too far with a limited light source will not be a breathtaking natural vista but a comforting, wrenching, hallucination of home.

Weir's best choice as a filmmaker here was simply to get out of the story's way. "The Way Back" does not want to be your best friend. Weir makes no attempt to cozy up to the viewer, to sweeten the story with phony warmth or touching crescendos. Weir makes no attempt to juice the action with cinematic steroids. For much of the film, the viewer is watching one grueling step after another.

Guess what? This is what it's like to suffer for a goal, this is what it's like to be crushed, this is what it's like, purely by chance - not because you are a better person or because God likes you more - to survive. You go on, hour after hour after seemingly pointless hour toward your questionable, impossible objective. This film is an endurance test. It will separate the men from the boys. Folks who think a movie about fantasy, sexy ballerinas is "great" filmmaking, and who think that temporarily losing their cell phone service is a human rights violation, will probably walk right out of "The Way Back."

Characterizations come slowly and are not forced. We discover, in a ruined monastery, that one character had been a priest. We discover that a girl can get taciturn men to talk. Characters speak of food, as hungry people do. "Add more salt!" to a fantasy meal, one begs. Valka makes a decision that caused this viewer to cry. I never thought the film could make me care about this murderous thug, but it did. There is inevitable, and surprising, laughter, also not forced, but integral to the circumstances.

There are moments of high drama. The men must fight wolves. Weir could have lavished lengthy close-ups on those sharp teeth, snarling snouts and prickly pelts. He doesn't. The wolves are onscreen only long enough to establish what they are and what they are up to. And then the next deadly and impossible challenge rolls down the shoot at the viewer, just as it did for those who took this long walk, and the millions of other humans like them, who have survived life and death challenges under impossible conditions. "The Way Back" is, like those poignant grave-markers the marchers make en route, testimony to those who have lived anonymous and agonizing lives in this pitiless world. If you don't think about the big questions while watching this film, and if you're not grateful to the film for that, you don't deserve it.
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93 of 97 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2011
Over the last decade, many have felt increasingly pessimistic about the state of modern American cinema, a growing wasteland of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, flashy effects and trashy writing. There have been a few diamonds in the rough, but for the most part, we have watched the art of film rapidly devolve into a soulless industry with strictly financial motivations, pandering to the market of the lowest common denominator.

But the end of 2010 gave us hope for the next decade, with several strong releases, most notably this powerful offering from master film-maker Peter Weir (Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, Fearless). Weir is at the top of his game, taking us on a journey which, despite its two-hour length, seems to end all too soon. As we follow a group of desperate Gulag escapees battling the cruel and beautiful indifference of nature, we witness not only an incredible story of human endurance, but also the true value of freedom and the price one is willing to pay for it. The performances were nearly perfect - Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, and Jim Sturgess are particularly brilliant. The characters are kept somewhat at a distance; we learn only enough about them as to establish a strong connection and human element, as we watch this band of relative strangers create intense bonds with each other during the ordeal. The dialogue is minimal but effective, giving the film a more realistic feel over-all. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who has worked with Weir on such exquisite films as Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock, engulfs us in a stunning palette of landscapes across an epic expanse of Asia, from the snow-driven forest of Siberia to the vast emptiness of the Gobi Desert. The cinematography alone makes this film worth the price to see it on a large theater screen, if you can.

Leaving the theater after this film, I truly felt a resurgence of faith in American film. Hopefully we won't have to wait another decade for another great Peter Weir film! The cast and crew of The Way Back have given audiences a wonderful gift, and I thank them for it.
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64 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2011
I won't wade into the controversy regarding the facts behind the story of this film. Just how true the story is and to whom it actually occurred won't be my focus. I'll write about the filmmaking itself. Peter Weir's entire career has been focused on this singular theme, man at battle with his environment. From the early day of "Picnic at Hanging Rock" to "The Mosquito Coast", "The Truman Show" and "Master and Commander"... the same theme dominates his expression as a filmmaker. "The Way Back" was the perfect vehicle for him to explore this territory once again. He gets to film everything from wintry landscapes of Siberia, the deserts of Mongolia, to the Himalaya in China and even a little of India.

The cinematography is suitably sumptuous but in no way artificially gorgeous. There is bleakness as well as beauty in the images. The story and characters take second place to the forces of nature. This might be the lethal ingredient to many viewers and their potential engagement with this film. The main character Janusz has a back story and a character arc, but the others are fuzzily sketched. The talents of Ed Harris are mostly wasted but I suppose it's better to have him more in the background instead of how Harris typically dominates his movies with his shouting and lapses into anger. I thought Colin Farrell was miscast as a Russian criminal who provides a bit of comic mischief but the young Saoirse Ronan makes an impression as the lost young girl.

The main message of this film apart from the man versus nature dynamic is the idea that it's better to die a free man than live as a prisoner. Imagine having a sentence in one of those Siberian prisons. Making a break for it even with the high chance of death is preferable in my mind to a dull life of drudgery in this far off prison. Better to die in an icy forest or the rain starved desert die than working in a coal mine against your will. I wouldn't rank "The Way Back" as one of Peter Weir's best films but it's a respectable effort nonetheless, more worthy of a cinemagoer's time and money than a lot of content in theatrical release right now.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2011
I saw this movie at the theater on a slow winter weekend. Most reviews were mixed, mostly they emphasized the the length of the movie and not getting to know the characters--I don't think it was 'enough torrid action' for most. I thought I might be a bit bored. However, I found the film inspirational, beautiful, and was never bored. The acting was excellent. I later bought the CD to show my elderly mother, who had lived through WWII. She absolutely loved the film. I'll never understand why this movie wasn't promoted in the USA. It is very much worth watching: 1. simply gorgeous, 2. inspirational characters, 3. a strong reminder that the Communist slave-gulags killed as many people as the Nazi concentration camps, and 4. a worthy tribute to the millions of lives that were devastated and lost in the Soviet era. The CD also has a nice background piece about the making of the movie, and the history behind it. It was almost as good as the movie.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 24, 2011
When this movie was in the theater, I hesitated because I didn't hear much publicity about it so I decided to see "Black Swan" and "The Fighter" instead. They were both very good films but not particularly memorable to me.

But when I saw "The Way Back last night, I was totally astounded by its intensity. I felt I went through the entire journey with them, not just physically but also the emotional toll it took on them. The understated human drama was so touching and you come away from this film thinking that despite the brutality of some, there is still an inherent goodness in human beings.

Early in the film, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) told Janusz (Jim Sturgess) that Janusz' kindness will kill him. But it was this kindness that got them through the ordeal they went through. Even Valka (Colin Farrell), a murderer turned out to have some human decency in him.

If you are looking for fantastical escapes and exciting chases, this film is not for you. But if you appreciate man's determination to resist evil and survive I highly recommend this film.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2011
I've since learned that the novel this is based on has been brought into question; it's author, like so many others, having been caught embellishing or even outright making up events that never happened. This brought back flashbacks of Charriére's "Papillon" and my rose-colored-shattering introduction to the world of artistic storytelling and filmmaking.

It's a hurdle all true movie fans must overcome. A maturation and learning process to appreciate the variety of dramatic biographies like Papillon, which I now presume much, if not all, of the details have been juiced; giving the audience something stronger to engage with and in. I never think, "Oh yeah, this is exactly how it happened." It's foolish and naive. Films are inherently fictional depictions. Like paintings, it's what the artist perceives, not what's necessarily there.

So goes 'The Way Back', an incredible journey of human survival and endurance. Telling the tale of seven individuals who escaped one of the thousands of unimaginably horrific communist 'gulag' prisons, crossing the frozen Siberian Tundra, the Mongolian Desert, the western wastelands of China, and finally clawing their way over the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet into Free India. A truly epic and jaw-dropping 4,000 mile journey - all on foot with no supplies and only the threadbare lice-infested rags they were issued in the gulag.

Would this be more palatable if it were completely true? Of course. But the story that's being told is very moving and deeply felt, regardless.

Additionally, you can never go wrong when Ed Harris is in the cast. This coming from a reviewer who can't stand the man in real life - even I appreciate that he's one of the finest actors of my generation. He never fails to deliver and this is no exception. He's so good in so many things it's hard to add to superlatives without succumbing to redundancy. Suffice to say - he's absolutely great... again.

Saoirse Ronan is really laying the groundwork that will propel her to unimaginable heights. I've watched her career and skill level exceed every expectation in every production. While talking heads and bloggers were commenting on Lindsay Lohan this and Dakota Fanning that - I've put my all chips on Ronan as becoming the premiere leading actress of her generation.

An amazing production and one that reminds me of another "lost" HBO film titled "Gulag" (1985). If you have a chance to get a clean copy of this powerhouse drama - do it. If only to properly witness the terrible suffering that so many millions of victimized people went through during Communist rule.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
THE WAY BACK is a discovery: there are some themes of films such as the bleak one this title suggests that we too often avoid, think that there is only so much that can be expressed or processed in a long stretch of a prolonged escape. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of this film. It begins in 1940 'when seven prisoners attempt the impossible: escape from a brutal Siberian gulag. Thus begins a treacherous 4,500-mile trek to freedom across the world's most merciless landscapes. They have little food and few supplies. They don't know or trust each other. But together, they must withstand nature at its most extreme. Their humanity is further tested when they meet a teenage runaway who begs to join them on their quest. A compelling testament to the human spirit, this gripping wilderness adventure is Peter Weir at his hypnotic best', as one critic from the Telluride Festival phrased it.

The screenplay by Peter Weir and Keith R. Clarke is based on the Slavomir Rawicz novel "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" and despite the controversy about the facts as portrayed in this film, this is a human versus nature drama that quietly explodes with an intensity that is at times nearly unbearable, while at other times extraordinary in the manner it shows how men survive the most impossible obstacles. From the beginning of the film in a Soviet Gulag the escapees include a Polish political prisoner Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell), and American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) who was caught working in Moscow when war broke out, and Zoran (Dragos Bucur), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), Kasik (Sebastian Urzendowsky) and Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård). During their 4500 mile across the Gulag, Siberia, the deserts of Mongolia, the Himalayas in China and into India they encounter a young girl Irena (Saorise Ronan, in an incredibly sophisticated performance), also escaping the Soviet Union, and she becomes part of the survival team.

The well-written script allows the human element in all its forms to rise out of the struggle with Nature and thanks to Peter Weir's astute direction and the incredible cinematography of Russell Boyd the epic is a deeply moving tale. Grady Harp, June 11
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
THE WAY BACK (USA/United Arab Emirates-2010) is based on an actual event: the WWII escape of six men from a Siberian gulag. They cut through a barbed wire fence during a blizzard and head south toward a large lake and the Mongolian border, both some 300 miles away. Struggling through dense forest and 40 below temperatures with very little food on hand, they barely make it.

At the lake, where they're able to catch fish and grow healthy again, the men meet up with a young teen girl who escaped from a collective workhouse. The seven set out for Mongolia, but once at the border they're confronted by a placard with a red star and Stalin's likeness on it, an indication this country won't be welcoming to escapees of Soviet captivity. Six of them press on for Tibet across the deadly Gobi desert; one remains in Siberia. Now they must endure a broiling sun, no shade or water and a massive sandstorm.

Two more die. In Tibet, they have to traverse the Himalayas. Ultimately, three make it to India after walking 4,000 miles across some of the harshest places on Earth. It's an incredible story of tenacity against the longest of odds.

Ed Harris (as an American arrested in Moscow at war's outbreak) and Colin Farrell (a Russian street thief) are part of the fine international cast. Farrell is exceptional. He brings subtlety to a character that could easily have been a caricature. This is easily his best film work.

The scenery is impressive, dangers palpable and the story grueling in many places. We suffer along with these freedom-seekers every step of the way. A most impressive motion picture from director Peter Weir. Highest recommendation!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2011
Do you really read those 5 paragraph reviews? It was a Friday night, I chose this movie and I enjoyed it.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2011
"The Way Back" will be appreciated by anyone genuinely interested in the history of communism and of World War II, anyone whose family were affected by communism or by the War, and anyone who likes to witness victory of the human spirit over the hellish shackles of totalitarian ideology.

There has been some knee-jerk dismissive reaction to this magnificent film because it is largely based on a book authored by Slavomir Rawicz who could not be the actual hero of the Long Walk. There is another survivor of Soviet labor camps Witold Glinski, who later claimed to be the one who successfully made the 4000-mile journey to freedom and whose story Rawicz used for his bestseller.

In 1942 a British intelligence officer Rupert Mayne had interviewed three worn-down men in Calcutta - men who had escaped from Siberia and then walked all the way to India. And a Polish engineer living in New Zealand had acted as an interpreter for this very same interview in Calcutta with the wretched survivors. Peter Weir said, "There was enough for me to say that three men had come out of the Himalayas, and that's how I dedicate my film, to these unknown survivors. And then I proceed with essentially a fictional film."

And so it is a fictional film inspired by real events. And the list of real events is long, including many faithfully presented details of daily life in Gulag camps; how common criminals were always deliberately put together with political prisoners, and the Soviet methods of interrogation were one member of the family would be turned against another (and here I recommend doing a quick Google search about Pavlik Morozov - famous example of Soviet anti-family propaganda for the youth).

The very first real event one learns in "The Way Back" is that both Germany and Soviet Union started the Second World War in 1939 by their invasion of Poland: Germany on September 1st, and the Soviets on September 17th. Few people know it and few historians like to admit that Hitler and Stalin were allies until 1941. For the Nations of the so-called "Soviet Block," or the so-called "Eastern Europe," or from behind the so-called "Iron Curtain" the War did not end in 1945. For those Nations the Second World War ended in 1989 - long after "the West" celebrated their "victory" and pretty much forgot about the War. Giving all those Nations as a gift to "Uncle Joe" (that's what his brand new "allies" fondly called Stalin) was part of a deal that he made with Roosevelt and Churchill in February 1945 at the Conference of Yalta.

Anyone who was deemed a threat to the Soviet regime would be killed or imprisoned. And so many ended up in concentration camps in Siberia from where practically there was no escape. However there were many documented attempts to escape. Successful escapes often remained unreported because they would give bad reputation to the camp's commanding officers.

And here I wholeheartedly recommend reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's book "The Gulag Archipelago." For anyone trying to compare the events from "The Way Back" to a weekend trekking in the Rockies, Solzhenitsyn's book will be a true eye-opener and it will make the Long Walk perfectly plausible. Keep in mind that journey was made not to impress a boyfriend or to break a Guinness record, it was done to escape from slavery and death and that's the strongest motivation there is: "Even when I die escaping, I die a Free Man."
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