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The Way Back

The Way Back

What She said:

She

I’ve commented on this before, but you never know what to believe when you encounter one of those “based on a true story” movies.  First of all, my definition of a true story may differ from your definition, and then there’s the whole “how loosely based” issue to contend with.  So any time a movie begins with those words popping up during the credits I sort of huff and shrug.  “Well ok then, I guess,” is my mental approach.

The Way Back is supposedly based on a true story.  More specifically, it’s based on a book that is based on a true story.  Of course, there’s that whole Whisper Down the Alley thing, where you wonder how much was lost in translation, but most of these doubts are based on the fact that the premise seems larger than life.  A group of prisoners escape from a Soviet prison camp during WWII, and travel to freedom by walking 4,000 miles through woods, across desert, and by scaling the Himalayas to India.  Of course, not everyone survives, but there’s a solid core of characters that do, and that’s beyond impressive. 

Adding to the complexity of the journey is that fact that the prisoners come from all walks of life, representing a slew of nationalities.  We’ve got the leader, Janusz; he’s Polish.  Then we have the old man, Mr. Smith, who is an American.  We’ve also got a Yugoslavian, a Latvian, and some other Russians and Poles.  A young girl named Irena also joins the group along the way.  She’s Polish, but has been living in Russia and her family are political prisoners.  One standout from the bunch is a Russian named Valka.  The dude is NUTS, but he’s also essential because he’s the only one who actually has a weapon, a knife.  Everyone is on pins and needles around him because he always seems on the verge of snapping.  But Valka serves his purpose.

So let’s talk about what I liked about this movie.  Visually, the film was a masterpiece.  The cinematography was very strong, and you can tell that a lot of effort was put into creating authentic visuals.  Not that I would ever want to have to journey with these people, but the filmmakers made the scenes quite picturesque, even the desert shots. 

Also, I think the movie benefitted from strong acting all around.  A lot of people in this film are playing ethnicities that are not their own, so I give them kudos for giving it their all.  Jim Sturgess played Janusz, Ed Harris was Mr. Smith, and Colin Farrell was Valka.  Rounding out the cast were Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Gustaf Skarsgard, and Alexandru Potocean. 

The Way Back

It’s a truly epic story, and later on in the film, when you sense that death is imminent, the tension begins to rise.  I would certainly stop short of calling it thrilling, but it was an interesting experience.  Watching the journey unfold made the film somewhat compelling, and my personal curiosities made up for any lapse in plot.

Now for the downsides.  The He and I had to turn on captions because we could not understand what the characters were saying.  A little too authentic were those accents to the point where they were incomprehensible.  I’d say the worst was Farrell as Valka.  That was the thickest Russian accent that I’ve ever heard come out of an Irishman’s mouth.  Because of the garbled speaking, I feel like I missed some of the backstory at the beginning of the film.  Everything in the Soviet camp was dark and many assumptions were made about our understanding of what was going on.  That left me somewhat confused at the onset. 

Another downside to this film is that the story was a little too basic and a little too easy.  Sure, the group faced plenty of perils, but they were almost always able to overcome them.  This made things, well, unbelievable.  They escaped from that Soviet prison way too easily.  Beyond that, the basic plotline meant that we had to rely on other factors to keep things engaging.  Like I said, I wasn’t bored with this film, but others might find themselves feeling that way.  I would have liked to have seen more in the way of character development during the journey, which really would have made The Way Back a more memorable experience.  With visuals as grand as they were, I had hoped that the plot would have matched, and it was slightly behind the curve there.

Overall, this is a decent film, particularly for those history buffs and anyone who has a particular interest in war.

Thumbs mostly up.

The Way Back

What he said:

He

Januscz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess) is a member of the Polish military, a POW, and has recently been accused of being a spy by the Soviets. As a result, he has been sentenced to 20 years in the Gulag labor camp in Siberia.

Not too long after he begins his sentence, he is approached by a fellow prisoner named Khabarov (Mark Strong) about a plan to escape. Another prisoner, Mr Smith (Ed Harris) warns him against partnering with Khabarov, but wants in on the escape plans. A violent criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell) also gets wind of the plan and demands he get in on the action. By the time it is all said and done, around half a dozen prisoners are in on the plan.

The Way Back

After some planning and discussion, the group decides to make a break for it during the peak of a snow storm. They believe it will cover their tracks. The snow-covered forest offers a lot of shelter from both the weather and their captors, but it is not without a cost.  The brutal conditions of a Siberian winter cause the group to suffer some loses. Hope arises as the terrain changes. A lake provides them with both food and water, but they can't remain in this area forever. They pass many villages along the way, but are too afraid to enter, out of fear for being turned over to the authorities.

Along the way, they pick up a straggler by the name of Irena (Saoirse Ronan). She claims to be an orphan on the run, but Mr. Smith does not believe her. He thinks she is hiding something. The group debates whether or not they can trust the girl, and whether or not they want another mouth to feed even if they do trust her.

Speaking of trust, nobody trusts Valka. Unlike the rest of them, he was not a political prisoner. He was "simply" a theif and murderer who happened to be in the same labor camp as them. He actually likes his country's regime and just wanted a means to escape. They only let him come along because they were afraid he'd rat them out and the fact that he had a knife (a rare and valuable survival  tool in this type of situation).

The men not only have to survive the elements, but also each other. Can Valka be trusted? Will they turn on one another as supplies diminish? Will they take pity on Irena and bring her along or turn her away because they can't afford to take care of her?

I had been reading about this one for a little while now. I never heard of it before, but when Saoirse Ronan was rumored to be reading for a role in Star Wars, and being a bit of a nerd myself, I decided to check it out. I've seen her in some other things and was not blown away by her, but heard good things about this.

I'm glad I did, because I thought it was a solid movie. All parties involved put on a good performance. Not a single one of gave what I'd call a weak performance. They were all good, but there were a few standouts. Jim Sturgess portrayed the hopeful and determined lead perfectly. Colin Farrell was simply excellent. I said at one point, "That guy is effin' nuts" because I felt like I was really watching a crazy person and not just an actor portraying one. I almost always like Ed Harris and this time was no different. I think he is a chameleon. He plays everyday people very well. I thought Saoirse Ronan was great too. She showed more range than I've seen from her before. Granted The Lovely Bones is an awful movie and I hated Hanna, but I was impressed to see more emotion from her.

This movie was also filled with awesome landscapes and makeup. All kinds of scenery was on display here. The progression of their injuries was very real looking too. No wonder the makeup was nominated for awards.

Diagnosis: Thumbs up.

This movie review was given the He said, She said seal of approval on February 27, 2014.

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