The Way Back (2011)

Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Keith Clarke & Peter Weir

Peter Weir, you know him. Yea, sure you do. The guy that made Witness and Dead Poet’s Society and The Truman Show and Master and Commander. What? You’ve never heard of him. Well surely you’ve heard of his great films? Yea, sure you have. So did you know he came out with a new film? The Way Back! Yea, I know right, who knew? Well I went out and saw it today, and you know what happened? Peter Weir delivered another solid, entertaining film. Imagine that.

This time he tells the story of Russian Gulag prisoners who dare to escape and make a fateful trek all the way from Siberia, where the labor camp is, to India, to freedom. The idea is sprung by Polish dreamer Janusz (Jim Sturgess), who is joined by American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) as well as a few other characters. Along the way they must trek through the frigid climate of Siberia, where they gain orphan traveler Elena (Saoirse Ronan). Then they hit the Gobi desert in Mongolia only to confront the sharp mountains of the Himalaya. Their journey is hard and they lose friends along the way, but they lose free friends, as they are freemen on a journey not so much to anything, but away from the hardships of Communist Russia and the Gulag camps.

In this case we have a story of humanity and the human will to survive. These men realize the struggle of the Gulag camps, camps that see far too little coverage in terms of history. Attention is paid to the concentration camps of Germany, and deservedly so, but I fear far too few are as familiar with the Russian labor camps. They were not as severe and were not exterminating people, but the conditions were atrocious and something very much worth escaping. What drives these men, and girl, is freedom. They wish to live their lives in the manner of their choosing. Many were wrongfully imprisoned into this Siberian hell and want nothing more than to breath free air once more. Their determination and tenderness towards each other, which is a growing processes aided by the presence of a female, is a beautiful portrait of the human spirit.

The Way Back is not Weir’s best, in fact it is not better than any of the films mentioned previously, but it remains that Weir is a solid storyteller, capable of infusing such things as human will and humanity into such a film. To imagine a group of men walking from Siberia to India to survive is to imagine the impossible. But at the same time to say that the human race is capable of anything less than the impossible would be a lie. The Way Back is an interesting, entertaining look at the impossible.

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