DVD Release Date: April 22, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: January 21, 2010 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language)
Run Time: 133 min.
Director: Peter Weir
Actors: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Gustaf Skarsgard, Alexandru Potocean, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong
The Australian filmmaker Peter Weir has made some of the bravest, riskiest and most thoughtful films of the last half century. His early movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Last Wave (1977) show his eye for the majesty of nature. His American films like Witness (1985) and Fearless (1993) explore the inner lives of complex characters, sometimes set against the power of natural forces (The Mosquito Coast, Master and Commander).
Weir's new film, The Way Back, may be his fullest exploration of man, nature and the soul. The story deals with oppressive governments, the will to survive and the evil that men do. But it also soars with the power of faith and the hope that can keep us moving forward when we might otherwise give up.
The Way Back depicts a group of escapees from the Soviet Gulag who face numerous obstacles in their long journey to freedom. To keep his focus, the group's titular leader, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), remembers his wife's forced testimony, which led to his imprisonment: "She'll never be able to forgive herself for what she's done," he says. "Only I can do that. So I have to get back. I have to get back."
That key exchange helps explain the title given Weir's film, and it strongly suggests that forgiveness may have been the key story element that drove Weir to adapt Slavomir Rawicz's book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom.
The Way Back begins in Poland with the scene of Janusz and his wife, then shifts to the Gulag in 1940 Siberia. Among the prisoners are a defiant American (Ed Harris) who goes by the name of Smith, a knife-wielding Russian named Valka (Colin Farrell), and a priest named Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard).
"Nature is your jailer," taunt the prison guards, pointing out the vast, unforgiving landscape that surrounds the prison. Despite the odds, the men break out and set off on a 4,000-mile trek to freedom. "They won't all survive," says a prisoner to one of the planned escapees. "But they will die free men," the other man responds.
A young runaway, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), joins the group at the invitation of Voss, who claims she was sent to them by God. Irena's history turns out to be murkier than she first lets on, but as she comes clean about her past, other members of the group begin to open up about their own failings—a decision to stay loyal to Russian authorities until it was too late, a murder committed in anger by a servant of God.
The men's freedom allows them to express these truths without fear of retribution, in palpable contrast to the regime under which they had been living. "We've all done terrible things to survive," Smith says to one member of the group. "But don't ever lie to me. We've had enough of lies."
The Way Back, filmed by cinematographer Russell Boyd (Master and Commander, Tender Mercies) on location in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, is often breathtaking to behold. The journey the characters make is arduous, and the film's depiction of the trek can feel daunting at times. The early section in Siberia is particularly challenging, as it requires viewers to discern the features of several actors (not all of whom are well known) beneath heavy coats, head coverings and face masks. It takes a while to make an emotional connection with any of the individual characters, as the film seems intent on making us identify with them more as a group trying to survive amidst howling winds, blowing snow and swarms of mosquitoes.
But the biggest enemy faced by the men and women in The Way Back isn't nature—it's communism. Their efforts to flee communist rule and to make a better life for themselves, results in a film that is gratifying on a grand scale. And yet the heart of the film is more intimate: the human desire for forgiveness, and the life-giving power that comes when forgiveness is offered.
The Way Back is not only an epic of the human spirit, but a story about the need for spiritual healing and release from past wrongdoing. It shows that the prisons we make ourselves can sometimes keep us in bondage more than any regime can. That's a powerful message no matter the setting, but The Way Back's backdrop of natural beauty makes for a unique, uplifting big-screen experience.
Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; "I'll be d-mned"; "a-s" "s-it."
Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of prisoners smoking; escapees share a bottle of liquor.
Sex/Nudity: Drawings of a naked woman are bartered among prisoners; a lewd gesture.
Violence/Crime: Valka stabs another prisoner at the gulag, and joins the escape after threatening a prisoner with a knife; gun put to a prisoner's head; dead, frozen bodies; a man's face has blood on it, and his clothes have large blood stains; Smith recounts how the authorities shot his son; Voss describes killing a young man in cold blood.
Religion/Morals: Kindness is cited as a weakness, but a potentially useful one to prisoners who may need help later; men hold and exchange a silver cross; Christian burials and prayers for the Lord to be kind to the deceased; Valka questions another man's morals, asserting that he "says too many prayers for an innocent man"; Voss says Irena was "sent to us"; Irena lies about her background; priests are remembered as being taken to prison camps after religion was banned by Communist authorities; a provision of water is described as a miracle, but the men wonder if they can count on one another; a cross marks a grave site; a character says he didn't kill himself because staying alive was a kind of protest; Janusz's journey is fueled by a need to offer forgiveness to his wife, who was forced to inform on him, because he believes she'll never be able to forgive herself—only he can offer the forgiveness she needs.
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