We know we're in pre-Oscars season by the length of the films. We've had 'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest' (147 mins), 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One' (146) and now 'The Way Back' (133). Of the three, Peter Weir's first film in seven years is the most likely winner at the Academy Awards.
Inspired by Slavomir Rawicz’s contentious book 'The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom', the film is a fact-based story set during Stalin’s Reign of Terror. The author has been accused of using another man's story and while the dispute has yet to be resolved, the film's release is going ahead.
It's 1940 and a group of seven inmates, led by Janusz ('Fifty Dead Men Walking' star Sturgess), escape a Siberian prison camp. In a bid for freedom and to ensure they never return to the Red Army's gulag, the inmates set out on a harrowing 4,000-mile journey over the Siberian Arctic, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, before arriving in Tibet and India.
If the Red Army doesn't kill them, the unforgiving terrain could and fear keeps the group moving, despite the fact that they've very little food, no equipment and only a vague idea which direction to travel in. The fugitives subsist on their wits, survival instincts and ignorance of the hardship ahead.
However, at times along the journey human instincts replace their terrified animalistic ones as compassion, hope and trust is allowed to grow amongst them - which they then lean on in the tough times.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd rejoins his 2003 'Master and Commander' director and is sure to earn an Oscar nod for the stunning images that he creates, offering expansive shots of some of the most treacherous and mountainous terrain in the world, in extreme weather conditions.
Weir, a six-time Oscar nominee, proves once again that he has a unique storytelling talent as he creates this epic story of survival and the power of the human spirit. Filming in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, the 'Truman Show' director captures the beauty of the breathtaking terrain while also retaining the power of this incredible story. He uses sound to great effect; keeping things simple and leaving the focus on his well-drawn characters. However, there are a number of scenes that drag needlessly and which would have benefited from a tighter edit.
Sturgess is excellent as the kind-hearted yet driven Janusz, who despite the worst betrayal, waits a lifetime before seeking the redemption that he yearns for. He, along with our own Oscar nominee Ronan, are two of the most exciting new actors in film. Here she plays a feisty yet vulnerable character, Irena, who, despite her years, humbles her older, fellow travellers and the audience alike in heartbreaking scenes.
Farrell, playing against type, is entertaining as Valka, the conniving, hardcore convict, bringing much-needed humour and energy to the group and film.
With critically acclaimed works such as 'Witness', 'Fearless' and 'Dead Poets Society' under his belt, cinema goers expect nothing less than unmissable films from Weir. 'The Way Back' may fall slightly short of the mark as it's a long trek of a film, but an incredible story and inspirational characters will keep viewers company.