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The Way Back Blu-ray Review

The Way Back (2010) movie poster The Way Back

Theatrical Release: December 29, 2010 / Running Time: 133 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Peter Weir / Writers: Peter Weir, Keith Clarke (screenplay); Slavomir Rawicz (book The Long Walk)

Cast: Ed Harris (Mr. Smith), Jim Sturgess (Janusz Wieszczek), Saoirse Ronan (Irena), Colin Farrell (Valka), Dragos Bucur (Zoran), Alexandru Potocean (Tomasz), Gustaf Skarsgard (Voss), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Kazik), Mark Strong (Khabarov), Sally Edwards (Janusz's Wife, 1939)

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The adjective that immediately comes to mind regarding The Way Back is "grueling." That doesn't refer to the viewing experience, but to the film's subject. Advertised as "inspired by real events", this drama from Australian director Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show) purports to tell the improbable story of a group of men who escaped from a Siberian Gulag camp and proceeded to walk over 4,000 miles to freedom.

The year is 1940 and communism is spreading across Eastern Europe. The film opens with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), an arrested young Polish man, getting identified as a spy by his wife. That is enough evidence for the oppressive government to send him to Siberia. Not surprisingly, things are miserable there.
The unbearable climate, demands of hard labor, and ordinary unpleasantness of prison are enough to make many inmates dream of escape. Just starting his 20-year sentence, Janusz gets the idea from a Russian actor (Mark Strong, even less recognizable than usual) doing ten for a movie he made.

Janusz finds out that the actor is all talk, but others are more determined to act on their impulses. Joining him in the escape are the grizzled American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), hardened Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell), a young man suffering from night blindness (Sebastian Urzendowsky), and three less distinguishable guys from different parts of Eastern Europe (played by European actors Dragos Bucur, Gustaf Skarsgεrd, and Alexandru Potocean). The stifling windy cold of Siberia is only the first hardship the seven men face. We know they won't all survive, since the film's opening text strangely gives away the outcome. Not that rank-thinning is unforeseeable, as starvation, hypothermia, dehydration, exhaustion, sandstorms, and mosquitoes all challenge each of our heroes' will to live.

Surviving members of the group are reluctantly joined by Irena (Atonement's Saoirse Ronan), a young orphaned Polish girl whose sob story is met with suspicion and skepticism by the cynical Smith. Their destination, Mongolia, is determined to be insufficient, when not long after crossing the border, they discover Soviet allegiance and familiar desecration. They decide their best bet for safety and freedom is India, requiring a trek across desert, through China, and over the Himalayan Mountains. To what lengths will these men and this girl go to avoid sacrificing their freedoms and lives?

Imprisoned for espionage against the state, Polish prisoner of war Janusz Wieszczek (British actor Jim Sturgess) becomes the resolute center of a long, difficult escape from labor camp to freedom. Though Polish teen Irena (Saoirse Ronan) is feared to straggle, she actually leads the group across a partly-frozen river.

The Way Back is based on The Long Walk, a book published in 1956 by Slavomir Rawicz and ghostwriter Ronald Downing. Rawicz claimed to be one of the men who made and survived this unbelievable journey and his nonfiction account inspired readers around the world. Still, the book was received with some doubt over its veracity, which Rawicz didn't quell with his refusal to supply verifying details and evidence (the memoir's description of an encounter with two yetis probably didn't help). Rawicz stood by his story until his death in 2004 at age 89. Two years later, the BBC issued a report citing official documents that found Rawicz was released in 1942 per Polish soldiers' general amnesty in the Soviet Union (where he had been arrested for killing a secret NKVD police officer) and transferred to a refugee camp in Iran, never making any escape like the one he told.

You sort of suspect that from the film, in which the absurd quest is depicted as a superhuman undertaking only achieved with great embellishment or pure imagination. And yet, Weir treats the event as if it is real, respecting the history and politics which drive the story. That makes sense, because if Rawicz's text was indeed a fabrication, why would anyone choose to adapt it? It is not as if the man vs. elements motif, which Weir explored in his previous film (2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), would lend itself to an easy and painless production. And the BBC debunking preceded the filming by 2½ years. Apparently, Weir believes this great journey did occur by some people at some time, while conceding that his film version is a fictionalization.

The authenticity of the source text is no trivial fact since the story has wide-reaching implications about overcoming adversity and a high potential to offend anyone familiar with genuine tragedy from World War II. Still, it's very easy to set aside the dubious foundation and enjoy the film as a piece of epic filmmaking. At face value, this looks like a movie exploiting historical oppression. There is no denying that it was positioned as Oscar bait, opening in Los Angeles on the last week of the year. There is something instantly pretentious and unappealing about that, but the film is easy to warm to and sympathize with.

Hardened Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) defends his chest tattooes of Stalin and Lenin in response to teasing. American inmate Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) shows his first sign of humanity helping Janusz avoid death while hallucinating in the Gulag mines.

The performances are committed. To my American ears, the accent work is all quite good. The story is easy to follow, requiring no expertise to understand the political backdrop. This is a human drama, led by some identifiable protagonists. The slightly smaller roles held by unrecognizable actors definitely do blend a little, as their humanizing material is given less time.
Weir's technical proficency is unmistakable and he stages trying episodes in lively ways, ensuring they're not just long diversions between morsels of archetypal characterization. Still, while they're never boring or belabored, the plagues never get as experiential as they seem intended to be. Your mouth won't go dry in the desert scenes, nor will you feel a chill in Siberia. Admittedly, that is not an easy feat, but other survival films have achieved it (as recently as Danny Boyle's 127 Hours).

Though foreseen as a real Academy Awards contender in almost every category, The Way Back was nearly shut out, receiving just one nomination for makeup, an award it lost to The Wolfman. Weir has been nominated for an Oscar six times (once as writer, once as producer, and four times as director), but his biggest wins remain BAFTA Awards. If this film suggested hunger for recognition, his selectivity (having made just four American films in the past twenty years) indicates otherwise.

Without adequate awards season buzz, The Way Back was unable to muster much business at the winter box office, grossing under $3 million domestically, and nearly $16 M in other parts of the world, where it's still rolling out. The film comes to DVD and Blu-ray this week from Image Entertainment, either tomorrow or on Good Friday, depending on your source.

Watch "Sandstorm", a clip from The Way Back:

The Way Back Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy Blu-ray from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

2.35:1 Widescreen
DTS-HD 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: April 19/22, 2011
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Suggested Retail Price: $29.97
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on DVD ($27.97 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's 2.35:1 picture is quite excellent. Visuals are one of the film's strong points and the disc doesn't disappoint with its clear, clean transfer. I spotted some minimal grain and flicker, but considering the elements braved in this international production (shooting locations included Bulgaria, Morocco, Australia, and India), this is a highly pleasing and almost perfect presentation.

The DTS-HD 5.1 master audio soundtrack also satisfies. From chilly winds to ravenous wolves, it dispenses atmosphere very effectively and also renders the prominent score by Burkhard Dallwitz a welcome presence. Some but not all of the foreign language dialogue is translated in clean burned-in subtitles. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are supplied for the entire film.

Director Peter Weir discusses his first filmmaking experience in seven years in "The Journey of the Journey." Jim Sturgess seems happy to see himself in the sky montage of the Blu-ray's menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Like most Image Entertainment releases, this one is light on bonus features. The main inclusion is "The Journey of the Journey" (30:57). This substantial standard definition making-of documentary gives the large roaming production the attention it deserves.
With a nice mix of cast & crew comments and behind-the-scenes footage, we get a sense of a demanding but enriching filmmaking experience. It discusses the varied international filming locations, the cast's chemistry, production design, and research into the real Gulag camps. Rather than just the typical superficial remarks, some specific notes emerge, like Ed Harris' need for quietude, Jim Sturgess and Colin Farrell's deer-skinning bonding exercise, and Saoirse Ronan's re-energizing arrival midway into filming. The only thing not touched upon is Rawicz's text and its dispute.

There is also The Way Back's 2-minute theatrical trailer.

The disc opens with trailers for The Resident and Every Day, both inaccessible by menu.

The Blu-ray's menu plays lightened clips in half the screen, sharing it with a static pose while score much louder than the film's soundtrack plays. The disc is gladly encoded with resume functions.

Though the DVD (which we're giving away... see the bottom of this review) is topped by a slipcover, the Blu-ray is not.

Having been dealt hunger, cold, dehydration, and mosquitoes, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) and his fellow walkers now face a sandstorm in the Gobi desert.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Way Back may be less grounded in fact than it implies, but learning that takes little away from this engrossing and accessible epic journey. Peter Weir's latest film isn't entirely satisfying (the ending, for instance, is unfortunately hokey), but it does a lot of things right and should win over many viewers for it. Image Entertainment's Blu-ray serves the film well, supplying top-notch picture and sound plus a good making-of documentary that bests most commentaries in just one-fourth as much time.

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Reviewed April 18, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2010 Newmarket Films, Wrekin Hill Entertainment, Image Entertainment, Exclusive Films, National Geographic Entertainment,
Imagenation Abu Dhabi, Polish Film Institute, Monolith Films, Siberian Productions, LLC, and 2011 Image Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.