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Published on December 2nd, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


The Way Back Film Review: The Journey Of Several Lifetimes


Director: Peter Weir.
Cast: Ed Harris,  Colin Farrell, Jim Sturges and Saoirse Ronan.

The Way Back documents the gruelling hardships endured by those held captive by Stalin’s communist prison camps as they escape their entrapment. The group swaps one form of tyranny for another as they are subjected to the devastating effects of an indifferent planet and undertake a colossal journey across Asia.

Colin Farrell is excellent as the murdering sociopath, Valka. Completely unstable, he can (and does) kill people for the most trivial of reasons without flinching or displaying even the merest hint of remorse. However, it would be impossible to stomach such a character for long durations without giving him some redeeming characteristics.

Valka (Colin Farrell) In The Way Back 1

Farrell, a highly accomplished and talented actor, is in his element here neatly juxtaposing the apparently incompatible and creating a likeable murderer of the innocent. His Valka draws the full gamut of human emotions from the audience. He inspires repulsion, disgust, hatred, empathy and shared admiration for his ruthlessly cold pragmatic approach.

‘Devoid of the nauseating precociousness that blights a plethora of films’

Farrell is well-adept to deliver such difficult requirements. What’s more he makes it look ridiculously easy when it certainly is not and in places his inherent charm is apparent for all and sundry to see.

Saoirse Ronan also delivers a highly accomplished performance as the, enigmatic Irena. She deserves great praise for not resorting to the cynically tired, ham-fisted acting of many of her difficult to watch young contemporaries. Devoid of the nauseating precociousness that blights a plethora of films and television series when ever there are young actors on screen, Irene is delightful fresh and exuberant.

Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) In The Way Back

Ronan demonstrates a fundamental understanding of what it is to perform and once on-screen is really an adult actor trapped in the body of a teenager.

The true star of the The Way Back is without question Ed Harris as Mr. Smith. Smith displays a tremendous strength and determination. A character not to be messed with, he is a natural leader among the group and despite the script’s positioning Janusz as the leader it is Harris’s Mr. Smith that is the real chief.

‘We never understand why Valka is so child-like in some respects and why he regards human life with such frivolity.’

One of the most interesting facets of The Way Back is the multitude of enigmatic characters that feature heavily in the film. Mystery plays a large part in the make-up of these people. We never understand why Valka is so child-like in some respects and why he regards human life with such frivolity. Perhaps there is no why but we never get the satisfaction of knowing if there is a reason or not.

Janusz (Jim Sturgess) In The Way Back

Likewise Irena, similar to the others, remains somewhat of an unknown. Her early attempts at deflecting the truth about her past hint at a troubled upbringing. Irena, Mr. Smith and Valka also refuse to impart their life stories. Instead what we get are titbits, recalled hand-picked vignettes that are supposed to sum up entire lives. As you can imagine these snippets are less than satisfactory.

‘it leaves a lasting impression of just how diverse the giant orb we briefly sojourn on truly is.’

Despite some terrific acting and fine performances from the cast the dominate character in the film is not human. It is the harshness and indifference of the planet and the sweeping landscapes that the group encounter that is the main protagonist and it is captured wonderfully by the camera.

The cinematography of The Way Back is simply stunning. A visual gourmet meal of exquisite beauty, of unending horizons and myriad terrains – it leaves a lasting impression of just how diverse the giant orb we briefly sojourn on truly is.

Khabarov (Mark Strong) In The Way Back

The second impression that the rolling scenery displays is the vagaries of climate and weather. From arid deserts to the enormous Himalayas, from the freezing tundra to the carpet of snow-covered forests, each setting provides enormous hardship to the group as they try to return to their homes while doing their best to stay alive.

‘He simply gets dwarfed by the trio of Ronan, Harris and Farrell.’

The performance of Jim Sturgess as the main character, Janusz, is somewhat disappointing. He simply gets dwarfed by the trio of Ronan, Harris and Farrell. The most damning indictment of an actor’s work is that it is forgettable and unfortunately on this occasion Sturgess simply leaves no lasting impression.

The other more peripheral personalities are even less distinguishing.

Irena (Saoirse Ronan) In The Way Back

The Way Back is a beguiling story. Undertaking such a tremendous, almost unfathomably difficult journey is something few of us can imagine. When the film is excelling it is focused on the immense landscape that forms the colossal expanses of Russia and Asia. Dwelling on the lead characters is also riveting.

However, where it is at its weakest is when those outside the aforementioned triumvirate, the more peripheral characters, are on screen. Not half as interesting they just fail to inspire and grasp our attention to the same degree. Another let down is the fact that there is not a greater exploration of the backgrounds of the people who have decided to undertake the journey to end all journeys.

Despite these flaws The Way Back is well worth watching and its good points completely overpower the negatives.

Recommended Viewing

You can obtain The Way Back here from Amazon.
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: The Way Back from here.
For Canada: The Way Back.
For Germany: The Way Back.
For France: The Way Back.

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