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the_way_back_2011_01“The Walk Back,” a new drama from “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’ director Peter Weir, is a sprawling epic with a very personal focus. Set against the backdrop of war, inhumanity and an almost insurmountable challenge, it is about that most personal of things, survival.

Based on a controversial memoir written by Slavomir Rawicz, “The Way Back” begins with Polish solider Janusz (Jim Sturgess) sent to a hellish Siberian gulag in 1941 on trumped up charges. Sentenced to ten years—a term he knows he won’t survive—he and a group of prisoners, including a grizzled American soldier (Ed Harris) and a violent Russian criminal (Colin Farrell) make a break for it. Their goal? Freedom. The obstacle? A 4000 kilometer walk through the harsh terrain of Mongolia, China and Tibet on the way to India and a new life. Along the way they pick up one more traveler, a young girl (Saoirse Ronan) whose camaraderie helps bond the ragtag band of escapees.

Visually Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd have created a film in which the surroundings really become as much a part of the fabric of the story as the characters. The breathtaking shots of the terrain the travelers pass through add much to the story, emphasizing the isolation and hardship of the journey. Their choice to showcase the backgrounds echoes David Lean and gives the film an epic feel as the story narrows and focuses on the characters.

The acting is uniformly excellent, with Ed Harris and Colin Farrell handing in tremendous work, but the most memorable performance belongs to Saoirse Ronan, the sixteen-year-old Irish actress. Here she plays an orphan whose enthusiasm and spirit gives the men the will to go on. She brings heart to a film that occasionally is a bit dour for its own good.

“The Way Back” is compelling stuff, a nicely painted portrait of the will to outwit, outlast and outplay against all odds.

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