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Movie Review

The Way Back

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The Way Back
Director Peter Weir's previous film, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," was released in 2003. What has the six-time Oscar nominee been doing for the last eight years? All the evidence is clearly visible in his latest project, "The Way Back." The story is epic in scope: In the middle of a Siberian winter in 1940, seven men escape a brutal Soviet gulag. They carry extra clothes and bits of saved-up food. Led by a Polish woodsman, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), most are political prisoners of various nationalities, including an older American known as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris). Also in the group is a hardened Russian criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell), who wields a large knife for survival and intimidation. Their plan is simple: to survive the trek across the frozen woods of Siberia to Mongolia, then south across China's Gobi Desert, and finally to India—a trip of several thousand miles. Survival is not guaranteed.

As they move south, the harsh environment and lack of food and water take a physical and emotional toll. They look for ways to cope. Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), an artist, draws pictures to lighten the mood. Zoran (Dragos Bucur) and Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård) trade quips about cooking. And when they meet a young runaway girl (Saoirse Ronan), they start to bond as a group and help one another survive against overwhelming odds.

The visionary director of such films as "Witness," "Gallipoli," and "The Mosquito Coast" is familiar with putting his characters in extreme situations. But this time Weir has outdone himself, journeying from the brutal cold to high mountains to limitless deserts. While the characters face unspeakable hardships, we rarely get to see much of their inner struggle. Much though the actors try to center the story, the harsh landscapes literally overwhelm them.  

That said, Sturgess makes a believable leader. He brings a gentle strength and warmth to his character that gives the story a moral center. As always, Harris is terrific, bringing grace and humanity to the mysterious Mr. Smith, especially in the relationship that develops between him and Ronan, whose luminescent eyes light up the screen. Farrell is feral and menacing, and does a great job showing the softening in his relationship with the others.

Weir does a marvelous job in showing the conflict between man and nature but fails to demonstrate the internal conflict each person must overcome. At best, "The Way Back" is a flawed masterpiece.

Genre: Drama
Written by: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke
Directed by: Peter Weir 
Starring: Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Gustaf Skarsgård, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky.

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