Review: The Way Back Blu-ray

The Way Back Blu-ray boxSTUDIO: Image | DIRECTOR: Peter Weir | CAST: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Mark Strong, Saoirse Ronan
RELEASE DATE: 4/22/11 | PRICE: Blu-ray $29.97, DVD $27.97
BONUSES: featurette
SPECS: PG-13 | 132 min. | Drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio/Dolby Digital 5.1 |  English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

The Way Back, the latest movie from director Peter Weir, his first film since 2003’s Master and Commander, is inspired by the true story of how a group of prisoners broke out of a Soviet Union gulag in 1941 and walked four thousand miles through Siberia, Mongolia and Tibet, across the Himalayas, to the safety of British India. It’s serious stuff, handled in epic style, and it certainly delivers on its straight-forward premise, though watching it can sometimes feel like the months-long, arduous journey the prisoners undertook all those years ago.

The Way Back movie scene

A group of prisoner escape from a Russian gulag in The Way Back.

That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. What’s good? The staggering depiction the journey, which is based on Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 novel The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. The seven escapees travel through all manner of environments — blizzards, rain storms, stifling sunlight, knee-deep snow, parched desert regions, jagged terrain, rocky mountain passages—and one can’t help but get caught up in this most primal and old-fashioned of survival stories. Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd do an outstanding job pacing and photographing their man versus nature saga, which is filled with a series of expansive long-shots of the sweeping panoramas that surround the walkers. No CGI here — it’s Lawrence of Arabia or Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala all over again. And it’s beautiful.

Then there’s the cast and script, which don’t work nearly as well as the film’s visual aspects. There are some solid performances, with Jim Sturgess (Heartless) as the Polish “everyman” inmate and Ed Harris (The Firm) as a tough-talking American prisoner standing out from the pack. The balance of the international cast, including are standouts — including Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), Gustaf Skargard and a heavily tattooed Colin Farrell (Crazy Heart) — don’t generate much sympathy or drama, partly because they bury themselves beneath their thick, put-on accents. When Polish girl-on-the-run Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) pops up in the middle and joins the men, a little more humanity is injected into the proceedings, particularly as their number begin to dwindle. But the personal stories don’t hold much impact and, ultimately, it’s the journey and not those on it that keep our eyes on the screen.

The sole bonus feature on the discs is a half-hour-long featurette that includes interviews with all the principal performers, Weir, his department heads and technical advisor Cyril Delafosse-Guiramand, a French explorer who walked the route on foot by himself several years ago. Weir gives the most enlightening insights about shooting on location in Bulgaria and Morocco (standing in for Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and India). Judging by what he has to say, star Sturgess found the location shooting and months-long camaraderie with his fellow performers to be a profoundly moving experiences, as did others in the cast. The best comment comes from a grizzled, Method-embracing Ed Harris, who talks about shooting on the normally silent dunes of the Saraha Desert with the chatter of crew members filling the air. “I still don’t know why it takes 125 people to make a fucking movie,” he harumphs.


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.