At the 83rd Academy Awards, a small movie entitled “The Way Back” competed against “Barney’s Version” and “The Wolfman” in the category of best makeup. Although “The Wolfman” went home with the prize, it was good to see “The Way Back” recognized at the award show. I only wish that this under-appreciated movie, which was inspired by the true story of a group of men who escaped a Siberian prison camp and walked over 4000 miles to freedom, received more recognition from the Academy.
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“The Way Back” isn’t your typical Hollywood movie. The story focuses on the long trek the men took to escape the prison camp that they were forced into. The drama shows these men as they try to survive in brutal weather and harsh conditions. Their journey is dreary and long but their story is worth seeing for its focus on freedom and on man’s fight to overcome injustice.
Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young man who is betrayed by his wife and sent to the camp early on. Janusz quickly learns that looking out for others isn’t the best way to survive there. The weather is freezing and the food is scarce and some prisoners don’t bother caring for the weaker prisoners knowing that many of them won’t survive much longer. Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a fellow inmate, tells Janusz to only look out for himself. At one point, Smith even says, “We’ve all done terrible things to survive,” and you can tell he means it. Janusz eventually befriends Smith and the two join several others in a plan to escape and journey to safety.
However, escaping the prison walls isn’t the most difficult part of their quest. After breaking free from the prison itself, they must survive and travel in the harsh Siberian wilderness. Along the way, the escaped inmates befriend Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young runaway who wants to join the group. They eventually accept her as they travel from the Siberian wilderness through a harsh desert and beyond.
One of the story’s greatest qualities is the relationship that develops between Smith and Irena. At first, Smith doesn’t want her to join the group but when she does, the two become friends. Colin Farrell, who appears as another escaped inmate, and Sturgess do solid jobs creating interesting characters but neither of them stand out. It’s Harris and Ronan who really steal the show.
The story plods around at a slow pace as the group walk dutifully along. The stakes aren’t raised as high as they could be though and some of the drama falls short. However, the story is told in a compelling way and it’s difficult not to connect with the characters who are only looking for a chance to be free.
“The Way Back” ends on a high note with images of feet on the screen shown over videos of major events related to the rise and fall of Communism. Through it all, the feet walk one step at a time like the men did. Their trek was worth it and is captured in great detail in “The Way Back.” Although this movie quickly disappeared from theaters after its release, it’s definitely worth a rental when it comes out on video. It’s a journey worth taking.