Monday, May 16, 2011

The Way Back: A tale of human endurance

The Way Back (drama, history, adventure)
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan

Image Entertainment | 2010 | 133 min | Rated PG-13 | Released Apr 22, 2011

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

English SDH, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

The Film 3.5/5

The Way Back is the story of an epic journey and the determination of the human spirit. Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society) directs and gives us an inspirational tale of hardship, perseverance, and what it means to be free.

I wouldn’t normally suggest this, but it’s a good idea to skip the first chapter of the film. Those first two minutes and 15 seconds contain two things: a list of credits explaining which studios were responsible for making the film and a brief text-only prologue. The prologue reveals too much of the story. It explains how many people survive the journey, their gender and where they walk to. The film still works, but I think it’s better to view it without knowing those details. It was presumably done to pay tribute to those who made the historical journey. You won’t miss a single frame of the film if you skip it.

The story opens with an interrogation sequence in which a Polish woman is made to inform on her husband, Janusz (Sturgess). He’s sent to a Siberian prison camp as a result. The year is 1940; a time when Stalin and Hitler were trying to conquer various parts of Europe.

Janusz meets a variety of prisoners, but we aren’t told much about their origins. Because of this lack of exposition, it’s difficult to tell one prisoner from the other at the start of the film. They dress the same and are similar in appearance. The guards are confident that nobody will escape because Siberia is a snowy wilderness and surviving under those conditions is next to impossible. Janusz wants to try anyway and assembles a group willing to make the attempt.

We meet Mr. Smith (Harris), Valka (Farrell), Zoran (Dragos Bucur), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean) and Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard). The prison scenes are subtitled for the most part, showing us that the party of escapees comes from several nations. It’s a brutal existence and one man is killed for his sweater. The escape party trades for what food is available and breaks out of the camp, evading pursuit by armed guards and dogs.

The group has a vague plan based on where it thinks the camp is located. Conditions are harsh and blizzards are frequent. There are mountains in every direction. Some of the group hallucinates at times, but six people survive long enough to set off on the journey. After a while, it’s clear that they are being followed. It turns out to be Irena, a young Polish girl (Ronan). She claims that her parents are dead and wants to join the group.

The remainder of the film is devoted to showing the journey. Terrain varies from freezing snow-covered mountains to open desert. Food and water quickly run out and the group is forced to live off the land. Their footwear isn’t up to the task and most of the party has to deal with walking on blistered feet with open wounds. Dialogue is sparse and we never learn much about each character. The story becomes a dour struggle for survival.

When the story of the journey is coming to a close, we are shown a montage of historical footage dealing with the collapse of communism. It brings us out of the 1940s and as far as 1989. The final scene is the most uplifting in the film and ties up a loose end.

I won’t say any more because, as I said at the start of the review, too many details ruin the suspense.

Weir’s film is well-acted, epic in scope and ambitious. The actors must have had a hard job adjusting to the different conditions as many scenes were shot on location in extreme cold or searing heat. The story deserved to be told. The thing is, the lack of character development doesn’t give us much to care about other than the general survival of the group. 

Video Quality 4.5
Russell Boyd’s cinematography looks incredible on Blu-ray. Some of the scenes showing mountains or desert dunes are breathtaking. The transfer does justice to the film and detail is good throughout. The opening gulag scenes are deliberately drab and muted, but the brightly-lit scenes during the journey are filled with detail.

Audio Quality 5/5
The dramatic score sounds wonderful on this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but the highlight is the use of ambient sounds. Whether the scene involves mining, a blizzard or a sandstorm, you’ll feel like you are there. More subtle sounds are also evident. While some of the accents are heavy, the track reproduces them clearly.

Special Features 2/5

With the exception of a theatrical trailer, there’s just one feature:

The Journey of the Journey (30:57) is a brief account of the problems faced during filming and includes comments from Peter Weir and the principal actors. It was interesting to see how some of the effects were produced, as well as discovering which countries were chosen to depict the ones used in the story. It’s well worth a look if you are curious about the film. The low score is for the lack of additional features.

There are one or perhaps two characters with enough depth to make us care about them individually. The story held my interest and I admire some of the previous work from Weir and the four main actors, but the film is flawed. The focus is on the journey, but there’s not enough background, exposition or character development to fully engage the viewer emotionally.

I would suggest this as a rental as its replay value would be limited for some.

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