By Melody Godfred

Peter Weir’s The Way Back is a film whose premise alone captivates: in 1940, a small group of multi-national prisoners escape from a Siberian gulag (work prison) and go on a 4,000 mile journey by foot to their freedom.  Inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s novel, “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom,” the film is based around real life accounts, giving the audience the fulfillment of experiencing an at least “somewhat true” survival story.  With Ed Harris playing one of the finest characters of his career and Colin Farrell again reminding us he’s capable of much more than just Miami Vice, The Way Back should not be underestimated as we head into Oscar Season.

The film stars several big names, including Colin Farrell playing a Russian criminal, Ed Harris as Mr. Smith, a quiet yet fierce American political prisoner, Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe as the optimistic leader of the group, and Saoirse Ronan of The Lovely Bones in a surprise role.  Each delivers a refined and multi-faceted performance, but it is Ed Harris that really shines.  With each passing scene, Harris transforms both emotionally and physically, as he goes from being a strong, stoic prisoner to an emotionally emancipated yet physically drained man on the road to salvation.  Don’t be surprised if Harris gets a Best Actor nod from the Academy.  Colin Farrell also deserves note as the only street criminal and odd man out among the group of political prisoner escapees.  Although at first Farrell relies on intimidation to assert his power in the Gulag, through the course of the film his characters evolves without sacrificing believability.

Over the course of their epic journey, the characters slowly reveal their personal motivations for pushing forward despite the direness of their circumstances as they learn to rely on each other and build relationships.  They also learn the importance of building a relationship with the earth, as they are completely dependent on the environment for food, shelter and protection.  A classic tale of the triumph of the human spirit, this film will appeal to audiences seeking more than just a cheap thrill.

The other feature I must note is the backdrop against which this story unfolds.  Through sweeping establishing shots, director Peter Weir, with the help of cinematographer Russell Boyd, pulls the audience into the film and allows viewers to truly feel as though they are traversing with the group across the snow of Siberia to the sand of the Himalayas.  Interestingly, the film brings back memories of Robert Zemeckis’ award-winning film, Cast Away.  The same life-affirming quality, the same silent score.  Aside from a few moments of transition, the film was generally very quiet, forcing the audience to connect not through artificial emotions inspired by a perfectly orchestrated score, but rather through genuine emotions inspired by the story itself.

Since the film clocks in at over two hours and has little action, this film is not for those seeking a quick and easy cinema fix.  To watch what the characters endured requires patience and compassion.  But, if you make it through, you’ll be rewarded with a reaffirmed belief in the power of humanity and the lengths we would all go to for freedom.