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The Way Back: fine acting breathtaking scenery



By Anthony Lauriello     1/27/11 6:00pm

Films glorify many things, but walking is not one of them. We prefer our films at faster speeds then that of the pedestrian. Peter Weir's new film, The Way Back, based on the book The Long Walk, is exactly that: an odyssey through some of the most desolate, inhospitable and beautiful places on Earth. The film concerns a group of inmates in a Siberian gulag in 1941, who escape and trek southward through the mountains of Siberia, the steppe of Mongolia, the Gobi Desert of China and the Himalayas of Nepal to their freedom in India. The film begins with the Polish Janusz (Jim Sturgess, 21) in an interrogation chamber listening to his wife recite an obviously forced confession that dooms him to 20 years in a brutal work camp. Upon his arrival at the gulag, the warden recites the "nature is your jailer" speech, a standard in all escape movies ranging from The Bridge on the River Kwai to Star Trek VI.

As Janusz hears the Soviet official talk about the desolate land, he looks into the foreboding and snowy forest, not with fear but with hope. It is a haunting and beautiful take on a cinema standard and stands as one of the movie's strong points. Janusz soon meets other prisoners with his conviction, Tomasz the artist (Alexandru Potocean, Silent Wedding), Zoran the accountant (Dragos Bucur, Summer Holiday), Kazik the blind man (Sebastian Urzendowsky, The Counterfeiters), the cruel criminal Valka (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) and an enigmatic American known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris, A History of Violence).

After trading for limited food and supplies, the motley band escapes into the blizzard. The rest of the movie could be simply a quest for survival, but when runaway Irena (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) begins to ask questions, the group begins to develop close relationships.

The actors do a superb job looking absolutely miserable. The story requires a lot of shivering and dehydration, and the actors rise to the challenge of communicating their desires when conditions rob them of articulation. Sturgess convincingly shows Janusz's drive for freedom, and Ronan somehow maintains an enigmatic beauty while her skin becomes blistered and swollen with exposure.

The greatest performance, though, goes to Harris' depiction of Mr. Smith. He never truly loses his gruff and abrasive "cowboy" demeanor, but we can definitely feel his paternal affection ?toward Irena.

The true stars of the film, though, are the amazing vistas and landscapes. While the movie was not actually filmed in every location, you would never know it. It is not surprising that the film was partially a National Geographic production, as watching it feels like gawking at full-color spreads of exotic places, and Weir gives us ample time to soak it in. Burkhard von Dallwitz's symphonic score adds to this sense of transcendentalism.

The directing does take a turn for the worse near the end of the film, with an awkward and ill-fitting montage of common knowledge Cold War history.

Despite the sour taste that this poorly executed scene leaves in the mouth, the film still survives as an epic tale of human spirit. The film moves at a slow walking pace, so those looking for an action-packed chase through the wilderness will leave disappointed. The movie shows that man can triumph not only over the trials of nature but also the tyranny of other men.

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