2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a film that garnered lots of acclaim from critics as it also received several Oscar nominations. Despite the acclaim, the film was a modest hit in the U.S. while its overall grosses worldwide did help cover the film’s massive budget. For its director Peter Weir, it was another of his great films as he would spend the next seven years taking on various projects. Among them was an adaptations of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram. Other projects included War Magician and Shadow Divers as none of them got past the development stage. Weir finally got a project going based on the true story about a group of prisoners escaping the Siberian Gulag during World War II based on The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz that would be entitled The Way Back.
Directed by Peter Weir with an adapted script by Weir and Keith Clarke. The Way Back tells the story of a young Polish POW who is sent to the cold Siberian prison where he meets fellow prisoners from around the world. The young man along with other prisoners decides to escape the prison as they go into a treacherous journey through the cold mountains of Siberia and into the desert where they‘re later joined by an orphaned teenaged girl from Poland. Starring Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Gustaf Skarsgard, Dracos Bucur, and Ed Harris. The Way Back is an exhilarating and adventurous film from Peter Weir.
It’s 1939 as Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is being interrogated for possible crimes in being a spy which he denies. When his wife (Sally Edwards) reveals, under torture, that he did commit crime, he is sent to the Gulag in Siberia for twenty years. Entering the Gulag in 1941, Janusz meets an actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong) who claims to know a way to escape the Gulag. Yet, Janusz learns from an American prisoner named Smith (Ed Harris) that Khabarov is just trying to make his own way out as Janusz refuses to give up. When a brutish, tattooed prisoner named Valka (Colin Farrell) overhears a conversation with Janusz and Khabarov, he decides to join in Janusz’s plan to escape.
Joining Janusz, Smith, and Valka for the escape are four other men that consists of a Lativan priest named Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard), a Yugoslav accountant named Zoran (Dracos Bucur), an artist named Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), and a 17-year old Polish boy named Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky). During a snowstorm and a blackout in the prison, the men escape as they trek through the cold forest of Siberia as they make their way South in hopes of reaching Mongolia. Along the way, they go further into the mountains hoping to reach a lake while they wear wooden masks during the heavy snowstorm. During the long journey, Janusz finally finds the lake as everyone goes to the lake.
Along the way, they learned that a young Polish girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan) has been following them as Smith isn’t sure in taking another person to the journey. Still, she follows them as they reluctantly let her join the trek to Mongolia. Encountering everything from mosquitoes to icy waters, they finally reach the Russian-Mongolian border only to learn that Mongolia is a Communist state. Realizing that the only place to go to is India for freedom, the group goes on a trek through the Gobi desert where they have to deal with all sorts of challenges to get across to their destination.
The film’s plot about a group of men and a young girl trekking through Siberia to India seems like the kind of film that doesn’t really do much in terms of plotting. In the hands of Peter Weir, it becomes an extraordinary experience about endurance and survival. Though the film’s opening dedication does spoil the ending which is the only big mistake the film makes. Weir and co-screenwriter Keith Clarke decides that the film shouldn’t just be about the journey but also the characters.
Janusz is the character who drives the film as he knows he’s innocent and hopes to return to his wife whom he loves and knows that she is carrying a lot of guilt for putting him in prison. He is then joined by several characters who would help him escape and take part in this journey. While there are a couple of minor characters like the shady Khabarov and the young Kazik that do get a chance to shine. They’re just minor players who would help everyone else. Smith is an American who came to Russia to find work only to be suspected as spy. Smith is the old man who would be Janusz’s right hand man as he’s also someone not very sentimental as he tells Janusz about his kindness which he perceives as a weakness.
Yet, the arrival of Irena would become the person that the men in the journey would feel protective for. She becomes their angel of sorts as at one point during an encounter with Mongolians in the desert. Smith would say that Irena is his daughter as their relationship becomes somewhat of a father-daughter relationship as the rest of the men are her brothers. The character of Valka is a brutish man who is an admitted thief and is willing to do anything to survive. Yet, he becomes someone who would help everyone for their survival while maintaining his belief as a man who loves Stalin despite everyone else’s opinions.
It’s not just Weir’s ability for audience to get to know these characters which include other supporting characters like Tomasz, Voss, and Zoran as they would bring their own personalities to the journey. Even as the film would have bits of humor through the dialogue as some of it is in Russian and Polish. The screenplay also has a great structure in how to tell the story despite not having a lot of plot-points or conventional story ideas. Though it would lag in a few places, the overall work in the script is superb.
Weir’s direction for the film is definitely top of the line in what is expected from a cinematic master. Shooting on location in places like Bulgaria for the scenes in Siberia plus other locations such as Morocco, Pakistan, and India for the rest of the film. Weir takes audiences into a journey as if they’re part of this long walk from Siberia to India as he always has the camera following the group or have long shots of them walking together. Part of Weir’s brilliance as a director is him always having a wide depth of field where he allows the audience to soak the vast locations they’re walking on.
Whether its coldness of the snow and heavy storms in Bulgaria as Siberia or the big sandstorms the group encounters in the desert. Weir allows the audience to get a feeling of the location with close-ups of the ground or vast long shots. There is always something that Weir is interested in and he’ll shoot it. Even if with actors interacting with nature while taking a chance to even get in touch with where they’re at. It’s definitely directing at its finest as Weir secures another film that goes up there with his vast filmography.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd does an amazing job with the film’s vast, sprawling camera work as he creates naturalistic images that are truly dazzling on film. From the snowy regions near the Himalayas and other mountains to the wondrous deserts. Boyd’s photography is truly exquisite not just for its realistic look at the locations but also in playing to the emotional tone of the film as creates dream-like images for scenes at night as well as a mirage-like sequence. Boyd’s work is definitely top-notch in what is expected for a film like this.
Editor Lee Smith does an excellent job with the film’s editing which is mostly straightforward as it moves quite well for a film with a near two-and-a-half hour running time. Smith also manages to keep the film going with rhythmic cuts for some intense, fast-paced scenes while a lot of the scenes of walking is slow but in a leisured pace.
Production designer John Stoddart and art director Kes Bonnet do a fine job with the few set pieces made for the film such as the prison where the prisoners were staying early on to the Soviet Union-Mongolia border arc they encounter. Costume designer Wendy Stites does a very good job with the ragged costumes the characters wear including the dress that Irena wears and the pants and boots the men wear in their journey. Sound editor Richard King does a spectacular job with the film’s sound in capturing the broad atmosphere of the locations the characters encounter whether it’s the snowstorms or a sandstorm. King’s work is definitely one of the film’s technical highlights
Music composer Burkhard von Dallwitz brings a wonderful epic, soaring score that plays to the journey of the characters. Filled with sweeping string arrangements and a huge orchestra, von Dallwitz’s score is definitely one of the film’s highlights as it helps play up to the film’s vast presentation.
The casting by Lina Todd is wonderful for what is definitely inspired casting not just for its well-known actors but also lesser-known ones. Smaller performances such as Sally Edwards as Janusz’s wife, Zahary Baharov as the interrogator in the opening scene, Stanislav Pishtalov as the prison superintendent, and Sebastian Urzendowsky as Kazik, the young prisoner suffering from night blindness. Alexandru Potocean is excellent as Tomasz, an artist who makes drawings as he keeps the morale of the group high while being a dreamer with high hopes. Gustav Skarsgard is amazing as Voss, a former priest hoping to find a home to maintain some kind of spirituality for those seeking something to believe in as he has a great scene where he and Saoirse Ronan are inside a decayed Buddhist temple.
Dracos Bucur is superb as Zoran, a Yugoslav accountant who brings some much needed humor to the film whether is the desire for salt or maintaining some kind of hope needed once they reach their destination. Mark Strong is very good in a small role as Khabarov, an actor who has the idea to escape prison but doesn’t believe anything will happen. Colin Farrell is phenomenal as Valka, a thug who is very pro-Stalin as he is an admitted thief but a person who cares about freedom as he helps his friends to their journey. Saoirse Ronan is just spectacular in her role as Irena, a young Polish girl who forges an unlikely bond with the prisoners. Even in her scenes with the more cynical Smith where the chemistry between Ronan and Ed Harris is one of the film’s touching yet low-key moments.
Jim Sturgess gives what is definitely his best performance yet as Janusz. A young man desperate to return home as his willingness to escape and go home becomes one of the key moments into why the film is so captivating to watch. Even as tries to maintain hope for his group as Sturgess proves himself to be a capable lead when he’s armed with a great cast. Finally, there’s Ed Harris in one of his best roles as Mr. Smith. A cynical American who came to the Soviet Union for work only to be in prison as he tries to maintain a realist approach to the journey. Even in being an unlikely father figure for both Janusz and Irena as he also some great scenes with the rest of the cast as Harris solidifies his position as one of the finest actors working today.
The Way Back is an amazing film from Peter Weir and company. Featuring a great ensemble cast led by Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, and Colin Farrell along with new discovers in Dracos Bucur, Gustav Skarsgard, and Alexandru Potocean. It’s a film that is a great testament of courage and survival as its captured through masterful filmmaking. Fans of Weir will no doubt enjoy the film for its adventurous vision and large canvas as it’s something that should be seen more. In the end, The Way Back is a stunning yet engrossing film from Peter Weir.
Peter Weir Films: (3 to Go-Michael) – (Homesdale) – (Whatever Happened to Green Valley?) - (The Car That Ate Paris) - Picnic at Hanging Rock - (The Last Wave) - The Plumber (1979 TV film) - Gallipoli - The Year of Living Dangerously - (Witness) - (Mosquito Coast) - Dead Poets Society - (Green Card) - (Fearless) - (The Truman Show) - Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World
© thevoid99 2011
I agree that there's not much to the plot, but Weir makes it work fantastically, in large part due to the dynamics and conflicts between the characters.
Here's hoping the next Weir film doesn't take seven years to come out.
I like a film more where there's not much plotting. It sometimes make it hard to keep the story going.
I agree that I hope Peter Weir doesn't get much love and I anticipate for what he does next. I don't want to wait another seven years.
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