"'The Way Back' has terrific acting but it does not have a James Franco, Robert Downey Jr. or Robert Pattinson." – DVD Movie Review

Sometimes a movie will place a critic in the odd position of appreciating the artistry and craftsmanship involved and yet leaves the critic entirely incapable of recommending the film. Director Peter Weir's “The Way Back” is a movie that inspires such a feeling. The work here is exceptional but it is exceptional in delivering a cinematic experience that I would not recommend to the average filmgoer trained on mainstream, Hollywood genre films.

“The Way Back” tells a remarkable true story in a fashion that feels intensely real. In 1942 three men emerged in India, then under the British flag, claiming that they had walked 4000 miles from a Siberian Gulag. The journey, if true, cost the lives of 6 other members of their party and had taken them across the frozen forests of Russia, through the Gobi Desert and finally over the Himalayas

In 1941 we watch as Janusz (Sturgess) is accused of treason by Russian military authorities who torture his wife in order to get a confession. Janusz is sentenced to five years in a Siberian Gulag where the harsh conditions hold life expectancy well below Janusz's sentence. The prison is surrounded on all sides by unforgiving frozen wasteland and with few supplies to hoard and fewer places to hoard them; death would seem to be the only possible escape.

The forbidding forest somehow doesn't intimidate Janusz who enlists several other inmates in his escape. Among them is an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell), whose only appeal is that he has a knife that could be handy for hunting and protection. Several other nameless inmates come along but all seem to melt into one behind thick accents.

The names aren't important; it's the remarkable, unlikely journey that is the star of “The Way Back.” Escaping the gulag was the easy part; the trouble for these brave journeymen was getting out of Communist territories where if they were caught they could easily be shipped back to Siberia. This means getting to India, more than 4000 miles away, through the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas.

Historians and explorers have been fascinated with this unbelievable journey for several decades and remain fascinated yet skeptical. “The Way Back” is based on a book ghost written on behalf of a Polish World War 2 veteran named Slawomir Rawicz. However, Rawicz’s account was found to be false based on documents, some in Rawicz's own hand, which showed he had been released as part of a general amnesty in 1942.

In 2009 another Polish vet named Witold Glinski emerged to say that Rawicz's story was true but was his story as told to Rawicz. Investigators and historians are still weighing the truth of Glinski's claim. Regardless of truth or fiction, the story as captured by director Peter Weir is a grueling trek filled with death, despair and triumph captured in heartbreaking detail.


Jim Sturgess is a terrific star for “The Way Back.” With his soft face and warm, kind eyes, you can't help but feel for him and root for him. Ed Harris is the perfect stalwart second in command of this journey, a man so hard you are welcome to wonder if the freezing cold of the forest or the intense heat of the desert could penetrate his cragginess.

Colin Farrell is on hand to give the film a little life beyond Sturgess's straight hero and Harris's distant toughness. I can imagine many film financiers saying no to “The Way Back” without someone of Farrell's star power, even under dirty makeup and crooked teeth Farrell is a charismatic presence.

Director Peter Weir spares no image to demonstrate how difficult this journey was, as if merely describing a 4000 mile trek from Siberia to Tibet, over the Himalayas and ending in India were not enough. There is yeoman work on the part of the cast and the makeup department to demonstrate the physical toll this 11 month journey took on the seven men and one woman, Saorise Ronan shows up half way through to give the film a much needed estrogen boost, who made it.

“The Way Back” is extraordinarily affective; you feel the bone chilling cold, the sweltering heat, the desperate starvation and dehydration. Peter Weir, not unlike Danny Boyle in “127 Hours,” wants to give you some approximation of the physical toll being exacted on the cast. The point is to then to help you feel the ultimate exhilaration of their triumph (that's not a spoiler; it's a true story genius). I get it but can I recommend it?

I want to recommend “The Way Back” because it is so very well made. Peter Weir is a master director who gives this story a visceral and agonizing nature. But, based on my description is this a movie you want to see? At well over 2 hours “The Way Back” is an extensive and exhaustive inventory of suffering even with its thrilling, cathartic conclusion.

The acting is fantastic in “The Way Back” but there is no James Franco or Robert Downey Jr. or Robert Pattinson here to distract from the tough slog with sly glances or general handsomeness. “The Way Back” has no inherent humor to lighten the proceedings and even the radiant Ms. Ronan and handsome Mr. Farrell are under so much makeup that their innate appeal is buried. So, why should you see this movie?

Film buffs and historians will be rewarded with a comprehensive, fictional account of what may be the greatest single physical feat that a man has ever undertaken. The truth of Witold Glinski's story remains in question but history buffs may find the details of Weir's telling of this story revealing. Film buffs will be impressed with director Peter Weir's masterful direction but beyond the buffs “The Way Back” is a tough movie and one that I cannot recommend for a general audience.

If you find that summation insulting then see “The Way Back” and report back that you are among the general audience I was talking about and you made it through. My point is not to insult but rather to say that I understand the inclination not to subject ones self to the excruciating, detailed, suffering of “The Way Back” even if it is Oscar caliber suffering.


















BYLINE:

Sean Patrick Kernan is a film critic. Check him out at: http://www.myspace.com/number1ramjamfan Email Sean at sean@zoiksonline.com.
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