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"THE WAY BACK"
(2010) (Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A small group of POWs escape from a Siberian labor camp and walk thousands of miles to freedom.
PLOT:
It's 1940 and Polish soldier Janusz (JIM STURGESS) has been accused of spying and sabotage, including by his wife, and thus is sent off to a Soviet prison labor camp in Siberia. There, he's befriended by Khabarov (MARK STRONG), an actor who always talks of plotting an escape, but never does anything about it, a fact pointed out by American engineer, Mr. Smith (ED HARRIS). He's also imprisoned there along with many others, including criminal Valka (COLIN FARRELL) who's racking up a bad gambling debt to even more menacing thugs than himself.

Despite being told that the real prison is the harsh Siberian climate as well as locals who would likely kill any escapees if caught, Janusz can't get the idea of escape out of his mind. After doing hard labor in the snowy cold and then sweltering mines, he decides to make his break. He's joined by Smith and Valka, as well as Zoran (DRAGOS BUCUR), Tamasz (ALEXANDRU POTOCEAN), Kazik (SEBASTIAN URZENDOWSKY) and Voss (GUSTAF SKARSGARD).

The camp guards quickly give up their pursuit, figuring the men will soon be dead from the weather. Yet, the group trudges on, eventually making their way out of the snow and eventually picking up Polish street teen, Irena (SAOIRSE RONAN). With the goal of making it to freedom in China and then later in India, the group must contend with varied weather and terrain conditions, worries about being discovered and captured, and the fact that they have thousands of miles to go.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Long before jets, cars, trains, bicycles or even horses, the only way for humans to travel was the original, old-fashioned way, by foot. Tens of thousands of year before any of those forms of transportation arrived, people hoofed it, so to speak, from the cradle of civilization and spread out across most parts of the globe.

Nowadays, and despite the various faster and less physically tenuous choices of getting from point A to point B, some people still choose to use the old dogs to travel certain distances. That can involve walking or running in races of various lengths to walking across entire countries, continents and sometimes all of the way around the world.

While movies such as "Forrest Gump" use such an arduous trek as a plot element and/or humorous gag, the journey in "The Way Back" is not only quite a bit longer, but it's the main and quite serious driving force in the film. Based on the 1956 memoir "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" by S?awomir Rawicz, it tells the tale of a number of WWII era prisoners who escaped a Siberian gulag, were eventually joined by a Polish teenager, and then walked some 4,000 miles to freedom.

It's an amazing tale of determination, fortitude, grit and luck, but there have been allegations that it didn't transpire as indicated in the original novel, or maybe at all. We're not here to determine the validity of the source material (we'll leave that to others), but rather to discuss the filmmakers' version of it up on the screen.

Working from a script he co-wrote with Keith Clarke, director Peter Weir marks his return to the director's chair after a 7-year absence (his last film was 2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") and delivers a decidedly old-fashioned, epic journey sort of pic.

Filmed in various locations such as Bulgaria, Morocco, India and Pakistan, the movie follows the prisoners (including those played by Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Colin Farrell) and the girl ("The Lovely Bones'" Saoirse Ronan), as they travel out of snowy Siberia across the Gobi Desert and then through China, across the Himalayas and then into India (controlled by the Brits back in the early '40s).

It's generally told well by Weir (who was once quite hot in Hollywood with films such as "Witness," "Dead Poets Society" and "The Truman Show") and features gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Russell Boyd. Yet, besides a handful of moments here and there (especially the very last scene), it isn't as emotionally gripping as I imagined it would be. Granted, its unavoidable episodic nature (stemming from the miles and time that pass by in the 130-some minute runtime) along with many shots of the group just walking along doesn't help.

Nor does the fact that we really don't end up knowing much about the characters save for a few disclosures here and there, and some who come along on the freedom trek essentially blend and thus disappear together. And without any real human antagonists (the gulag guards quickly give up any sort of pursuit while most all others are just anonymous figures from which the group must occasionally hide), there's no real human conflict save for some random intrapersonal group dynamics).

Most of that stems from Farrell playing a career criminal and thus potential loose cannon whose often-seen knife signals his potentially dangerous side. Even so, there isn't a great deal of person-to-person strife other than a brief discussion about whether to allow Ronan's character to join their trek. That said, one of the interesting aspects of the story structure is that the new and thus inexperienced guy in the gulag, nicely played by Sturgess, ends up being the unofficial leader of the group during their journey.

Weir introduces his motivation in the first scene and then a brief discussion toward the end, but his character (along with Harris' and his back-story) could have used more fleshing out, thus making their story and quest all the more poignant. Aside from a brief and similar tale regarding Ronan's teen, the rest of the characters are pretty much story-less, and that takes away some of the power the film could have unleashed on viewers.

That said, there's still something captivating about the way in which the filmmakers and the cast and crew have told this tale. It certainly operates in something of an old David Lean atmosphere (shades of "The Bridge on the River Kwai"), and maybe that old-fashioned approach struck a chord for me regarding those great films I saw back in my formative years. Not great, but still good, "The Way Back" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 18, 2011/ Posted January 21, 2011


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