‘The Way Back’ - an impossible trek turned into a cinematic triumph (IANS Movie Review)

March 4th, 2011 - 8:04 pm ICT by IANS  

Film: “The Way Back”; Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Dragos Bucur; Director: Peter Weir; Rating: ****

Through the history of mankind, various events - enforced or self-inflicted - have proven the boundless endurance of the human body and mind. But to depict that on film requires a different kind of skill set and endurance from a director.

Thankfully, “The Way Back” has Peter Weir, who comes out with one of the most gritty, seemingly unbelievable yet realistic tales of survival ever captured on celluloid.

For the thousands of prisoners in the Gulag camps during World War II, the real prison is not one of barbed wires, but the five million square miles of Siberia and its brutal weather. When Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is falsely accused and brought there, he wants to escape immediately. And he does it with six other inmates, heading towards Mongolia down south.

One dies on the way, but the rest of the band, joined by a female, survive the odds to reach Mongolia only to find that the nation has turned communist and they can no longer seek political refuge there. So, they decide something crazier - to walk all the way up to India.

Unbelievable as it sounds, Weir discovered that it was not just the book “The Long Walk” on which the film is based, and its foursome that survived this impossible 6,500 km trek, but many others also did. In truth, the authenticity of the man who claimed the trek in the book is in question, but the director found other credible sources.

Yet, beyond the doubts of the authenticity of the story was the challenge of translating the mental and physical strain of such an impossible journey into a film. Here, Weir uses sharp writing, breathtaking cinematography, excellent makeup and a sterling performance from his cast to give the story multiple insulin shots of believability.

Weir, the director of masterpieces such as “The Truman Show” and “Dead Poets Society”, pits the pitiable condition of our fugitives with the surreal beauty of the landscape they trek through which seem to both mock and inspire the intrepid travellers.

The message - the world is too vast to either completely fathom or for puny man to consider himself masters, even if once in a while he does manage the impossible.

The film has many moments that will haunt the viewers, and this besides the haunting landscapes in which it is shot. In one scene, the hungry travellers find a half eaten carcass of some animal being eaten by a pack of wolves. The men chase the wolves away and jump on the flesh, feasting on it like the wolves were barely a few minutes back. In another, a man with night blindness unable to reach the place they were sheltering, freezes to death only for his mates to find him barely a few feet from where they were.

Politically the film is a statement against communism and its endless series of human rights abuse though the decades. If you consider the analogy, the long walk of the trans-national prisoners, who except one are not criminals, is a walk of the world away from communism.

Thousands of travellers through the ages have trekked through the most inhospitable of snowy mountains and dehydrating deserts. Few have made it, most have not. To the delight of every discerning film lover in the world, “The Way Back” does make it.

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