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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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Janusz (Jim Sturgess) leads a group of escaped prisoners
on a brutal journey in
The Way Back.

3 Stars

Though it’s certainly not the most exciting movie in recent memory, The Way Back represents accomplished filmmaking at its best. Made for just $30 million, the film looks like it cost three times that. The scenery is gorgeous, and the way the film is photographed helps you forgive some of its narrative hiccups and dead spots. Director Peter Weir is a pro, so such great work shouldn’t come as a surprise, but because the film was so overlooked last year, I thought it might be a bust. Thankfully, it’s not the case, and though I can see why many chose to ignore it, I admire its grandeur and old-fashioned, epic approach.

The film is based on a true story and follows a group of individuals who escape a Siberian prison. Led by a Polish man, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), the group includes a mysterious American (Ed Harris) and a tough-as-nails Russian (Colin Farrell). As they trek through the frigid Russian wilderness, they suffer hardship after hardship—hunger, weather, lack of supplies, distrust among the group, and a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) who tags along. Once they reach their goal, Mongolia, they’re disheartened to find it now under control of Communists, so they continue walking—this time through the desert—with slim hopes for survival.

The problem with the film is that the story, while very noble and inspiring, isn’t really all that cinematic. I thought it would be, especially with Weir at the helm, but too much of the film is just walking, walking, walking. Luckily, every time the film started to lose me, something happened that would recapture my attention—the introduction of Ronan’s character, a wrench in Janusz’ plans, a major change in scenery.

Despite the narrative issues, however, Weir’s direction can’t be discounted. The photography is magnificent, with very vivid scenery and great camera movement. I loved the kind of performances he pulled out of his actors—Harris, Farrell, and Ronan are all very good, while Sturgess is an important anchor, providing soft-spoken leadership to the group and an emotional throughline for us. We care about this journey because we want Janusz to succeed and survive.

The film ends on a high note and left me feeling more bullish on the film than I thought I would around the halfway point. It hits some seriously bum notes, but I’m glad I sought it out (especially on Blu-Ray, which makes the scenery really pop). It’s definitely not the best 2010 film I saw, and it might not stick with me for a long time, I’m glad to give it a decent recommendation.


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