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

Trailer; emanuellevy.com/videos/view.cfm?id=306

His 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. But 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 and competitive theatrical marketplace that a Peter Weir film should be released by a company such as Newmarket, which acquired the film during it world premiere at the Telluride Film Fest.
 
Weir and Keith Clark, 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 executive producer Clarke.
 
As a result, it takes some time to sort out the various persona and to get closer to them. Here is another case of an epic film trying to reconcile the dictates of plot versus those of characterization, and thus the film’s focus changes from sequence to sequence.
 
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 others, 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. Janusz is determined to survive for personal reasons as well. Though his wife had betrayed him, he is eager to go back to her. In a recurrent visual motif, we see fantasizing of the day he would open the front door of his house and see her.
 
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.
 
Seven prisoners, caught up in Stalin’s Reign of Terror, escape a Soviet Gulag in 1940. Though they are free, 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 full of hardship and drama. Driven by base animal instincts—survival and fear—while relying on evolved human traits—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 losses along the way.
 
As a result 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.
 

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 extraordinary events and landscapes, which force them to reveal inner strengths they did not 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 do play other major festivals.
 
Running time: 134 Minutes.
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