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The Warsaw Voice » World of Movies » April 28, 2011
Film review
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The Way Back
April 28, 2011   
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In his latest movie, Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, Dead Poets Society, Truman Show) has embarked on a risky venture into the realm of Soviet gulags—alongside Nazi death camps the most brutal system in history to crush and kill the human spirit. Weir’s The Way Back is a moving story of fortitude, determination and in a broader historical sense, of a lost generation in Central Europe whose youth coincided with World War II.

No major surprises await viewers, who learn from the opening credits that in 1940 three men crossed the Himalayas while walking 6,000 kilometers to freedom. You know from the start how many characters will survive the ordeal and you wonder only who they will be.

The script of The Way Back is based on The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, a best-selling book by Sławomir Rawicz published in Britain in 1955. Rawicz, born in 1915, gave his account of a daring escape that a group of Gulag prisoners in Siberia undertook through Siberia to Lake Baikal and then all the way to India across communist Mongolia and over the Himalayas.

The veracity of Rawicz’s account has repeatedly been questioned, but that takes nothing away from the movie. Even if most events depicted in the film were fiction, it is still a fascinating and well-told story.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess—21, The Other Boleyn Girl) is a Polish officer who was probably taken captive after the Soviet invasion of Poland Sept. 17, 1939. Janusz is sent to the Gulag when his wife is forced to testify that he is a spy. Given a 25-year sentence, Janusz immediately starts planning an escape. He soon assembles a team of like-minded desperados, including taciturn American engineer Smith (Ed Harris—Pollock, The Rock) who helped build the metro in Moscow and like Janusz was sentenced for espionage, several Poles, a Latvian priest, a Yugoslav and, a complete mismatch with the rest, a Russian criminal by the name of Valka (Colin Farrell—Alexander, Miami Vice). Sporting tattoos depicting Stalin and Lenin, Valka is a gambler who, no longer able to pay his debts to a gang in the camp, has to flee to survive.

The characters struggle across the frozen taiga, frozen lakes, wolf-infested forests, deserts and swamps where mosquitoes are more dangerous than Gulag guards. On the way, they are joined by 14-year-old Irena (Saoirse Ronan—Atonement, The Lovely Bones), a runaway from a Soviet orphanage in which she ended up when her parents, Polish communists, were shot dead during Stalinist purges in 1937.

Cinematographer Russell Boyd, a 2004 Academy Award winner for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, directed by Weir, has once again reached heights that are unattainable for most other cinematographers. Epic scenes in which the characters walk thousands of kilometers through wilderness are memorable long after the film ends. The ending, while perhaps a little too symbolic, may strike a chord with viewers, Polish ones in particular. Among the movie’s many strong points is its remarkable linguistic authenticity, with dialogue in Russian, Polish and English. Farrell’s Russian is probably the most impressive part, testifying to what must have been very long and painstaking language lessons or the actor’s extraordinary gift for languages.

Witold Żygulski
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