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It is shocking to realize that the vet and acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir has not made a feature in seven years, ever since “Master and Commander,” in 2003, to be exact. That good movie, which starred Russell Crowe, had the misfortune of being released the same season as Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which got all the attention and swept all the awards.

 
Weir’s new film, "The Way Back," deals with a significant historical event, the true story of POWs who escaped the Siberian Gulags and crossed the Himalayas to freedom. However, compelling and relevant as the story is, it is done in an old-fashioned way, recalling the work of David Lean and other masters of the big-screen epics of the 1960s and 1970s.
 
It’s a testament to the new, cruel, ultra- competitive theatrical marketplace that a Peter Weir film should be released by a company such as Newmarket, which has mostly distributed indie and art fare. Newmarket acquired the film during it world premiere at the Telluride Film Fest.
 
Weir and Keith Clarke, loosely adapting to the screen the book by Slavomir Rawicz, "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom," have decided to shape the tale as a broad travelogue adventure, rather than a more detailed and specific character study. Reportedly, the scenario also includes first-person accounts and anecdotes as told to, and researched by Weir and Clarke (who also functions as executive producer).
 
It takes some time to sort out the various persona and to get closer to them. Here is another case of an epic film that’s trying to reconcile the dictates of plot versus those of in-depth characterization. As a result, the film’s focus changes from sequence to sequence, alternating between quiet and intimate dialogue-driven sequences and long takes in which the men are depicted as members of a group.
 
Shot in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, the film stars Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell as prisoners of a Soviet Union labor camp, who, along with four other men, flee their Siberian Gulag and begin a treacherous journey across thousands of miles of hostile terrain. 
 
In the first scene, set in 1939 in Russia-occupied Poland, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), accused of being a spy, is sentenced to a remote, brutal, and inhuman Siberian labor camp.  Though his wife had betrayed him, he is eager to go back to her.  This is revealed gradually, establishing Janusz as a man determined to survive for personal as well as family reasons.  In a recurrent visual motif, we see him fantasizing of the day he would open the front door of his house and see his wife again.
 
Janusz’s peers include a taciturn American structural engineer, Mr. Smith, (Ed Harris), and a violently unpredictable Russian, Valka (Colin Farrell). Valka belongs to a vicious stratum of convicted street criminals, “Urki,” who are allowed to run the Gulags and intimidate the “political” inmates.
 
Most of the tale switches among the seven prisoners, who, caught up in Stalin’s Reign of Terror, escape a Soviet Gulag in 1940.  Though they are free from prison, their impending trek to safety defies any reasonable chance of survival as the landscape they must cross is long, harsh, and unforgiving.
 
With little food or equipment, and no certainty of their location or intended direction, they embark on a journey that’s full of hardship and drama, manifest in their unexpected encounters with other humans along the way.
 
Driven by basic animal instincts—survival and fear—while relying on the evolved human traits of compassion and trust, the group endures all kinds of transformative experiences that are profound and abysmal, anguished and ecstatic. All the while, they abide by one mandate, to keep moving, regardless of the obstacles, hardships, and human losses along the way. (Early on, it becomes clear that no all seven of them would survive).
 
Unfortunately, as a direct function of the director’s narrative and stylistic strategies, at the end, you feel that you have witnessed yet another (perhaps too generic) epic story of survival, solidarity and indomitable human will. These are all cherished values that we would have rooted for in a more personal and enthusiastic way, if they were depicted in a more original or non-conventional manner.
 
You don’t have to be an auteurist critic to detect some thematic continuities in Peter Weir’s four decade career.  In his best-known films, such as “Master and Commander,” “The Truman Show,” “Fearless,” and “Gallipoli,” Weir places human nature under the microscope of duress, depicting ordinary people who are subjected to the kinds of events and landscapes, which turn them extraordinary. In the process, they are all forced to reveal inner strengths they did not even know they possessed. 
 
“The Way Back” very much belongs to this category of films.
 
Cast:
 
Janusc (Jim Sturgess)
Mr. Smith (Ed Harris)
Valka (Colin Farrell)
 
With:
 
Alexandru Potocean
Sebastian Urzendowsky
Gustaf Skarsgard
Dragos Bucur
Saoirse Ronan
Mark Strong.
 
Credits
 
A Newmarket Films release of an Exclusive Media Group, National Geographic Entertainment, ImageNation Abu Dhabi presentation of an Exclusive Films production, co-financed by Polish Film Institute, Monolith Films.
Produced by Joni Levin, Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson, Nigel Sinclair.
Executive producers, Keith Clarke, John Ptak, Guy East, Simon Oakes, Tobin Armbrust, Jake Eberts, Edward Borgerding, Mohamed Khalaf, Adam Leipzig, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Schwartz.
Co-producer, Roee Sharon Peled.
Co-executive producer, Alex Brunner.
Directed by Peter Weir
Screenplay by Weir and Keith Clarke, based on the novel "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" by Slavomir Rawicz.
Camera, Russell Boyd.
Editor, Lee Smith.
Music, Burkhard Dallwitz.
Production designer, John Stoddart.
Art director, Kes Bonnet.
Costume designer, Wendy Stites.
Sound, Martin Muller; supervising sound editor, Richard King; re-recording mixer, Ron Bartlett.
Visual effects supervisors, Tim Crosbie, Dennis Jones; visual effects, Rising Sun, Visual Symphony, Crazy Horse.
Casting, Lina Todd, Judy Bouley.
 
The film received it world premiere at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival, in September, but did not play other major festivals.
 
Running time: 134 Minutes.
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