The Way Back (UK - DVD R2)
Marcus takes a journey with Peter Weir's new film and now he needs a foot rub...
World War II. After escaping from a Siberian prison camp in a raging snow storm, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) and his fellow escapees (including Colin Farrell and Ed Harris) trek across borders fighting for survival against the elements and the ever present possibility of being recaptured. On their journey the group meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), and with the help of the talkative young girl the small band begin to learn about each other's lives before their imprisonment but with the decision to head for India their journey takes them on more perilous paths and the struggle to survive and to live as free men takes its toll.
How is it that a film by the director of Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World amongst others, has had such a low key release? Okay so the cast aren’t exactly huge box office draw, but they are still talented, known actors and actresses and this film ain’t a half assed affair. The Way Back has Oscar consideration written all over it yet here we are with a DVD release that just sort of appeared from nowhere.
Peter Weir brings us a movie that feels like it’s been done time and time again, but being the solid director that he is, manages to make it engaging, thoroughly entertaining and strikes a fine balance between the hard facts of how hard this journey would be with a real emotional core for his characters. On top of that he manages to get some great performances out of his cast. Ed Harris delivers another subtly brilliant character piece, Jim Sturgess is by far the best I’ve seen him, Saoirse Ronan continues to make all other young actresses look like they should try a bit harder, and not only does Colin Farrell deliver a good Russian accent but he probably delivers his best dramatic performance since Tigerland. In fact he’s borderline brilliant here as the hardened criminal who really only escaped the camp as he had debts to pay, otherwise he probably would have stayed there.
Through the many different and changing backdrops The Way Back really sells the distance these guys travelled (honestly there’s more walking than in Lord of the Rings). The different terrains are all depicted with their own challenges, we’re given a few tips on survival too (it is a movie produced by National Geographic after all) and as the movie lifts itself out of the familiar and starts to flesh out the characters' personalities I really felt the emotions build as some of them were beaten down by their impossible journey. Weir really managed to weave in the spiritual side of the characters' responses to death and when these moments happen there is a genuine sense of loss.
By journeys end the sense of achievement is high and even though the closing scenes showing the history of Poland after WWII and having one of the survivors as an old man completing his personal journey felt a little disjointed from the rest of the movie, The Way Back was a thoroughly enjoyable, uplifting way to spend two hours, despite the bleakness of the situation.
Well given the length of this movie's journey varies from the bitter winter of Siberia to the sunny fields of India there’s a whole lot of changing environments to cover here. First we’ll start with the negatives. This standard definition DVD is obviously going to be a whole lot softer than the Blu-ray would be (and it really is quite soft most of the time). Black levels are the biggest inconsistency—it comes down to the difference between genuine location shots and faux location shots filmed on a set. The later has deep black levels, really selling the cold blues of the snow covered forest or the rocks of a cave but the genuine exterior scenes look a bit washy. The black levels are not all that black and everything looks noticeably more ‘outside’ when we are actually out in the open.
Colours sort of suffer from the same inconsistencies but not on the same level. Darker scenes are full of blues, with textures such as clothes and stubble faring well whereas sunnier scenes wash out the colours and sand covered faces really bring out wrinkles and cuts/burns on characters faces. Generally speaking I'd say the transfer here is great with only its standard def'ness holding it back in all the areas where we know HD shines. It's a shame I didn't get to look at the Blu-ray as a comparison as while this DVD has some real moments that shine, it's not a regular occurrence.
The first half of the movie is full of Dolby Digital 5.1 goodness. There's barely a moment that goes by without some sort of atmospheric selling the scene. Stomping feet on snow, creaking wood, shouting, talking, pretty much anything and everything you'd imagine in a crowded hut of prisoners is here and most of it sounds utterly realistic immersing you in the situation. As the film moves on we get an aggressive audio attack in the mines some of the prisoners are forced to work in. Booming bass for explosions and an abstract sonic assault sells how disoriented Janusz is in his confined surroundings. It's fantastic stuff and a real highlight on the track.
As the film travels on, sound slowly strips away, there's less of the strong dialogue and characters get more and more worn down with their forest backgrounds getting replaced with vast empty deserts. This is captured well in the track and there's even an effective moment of utter silence as a character collapses on a sand dune which is very haunting. Despite not being the sort of movie you'd expect a wide feeling multi-layered track from, The Way Back delivers and what it lacks in exciting set pieces it more than makes up for with subtly clever audio effects that bring the many, many survival scenarios to life.
Trailers for Neds and Fairgames are the only extra bits on disc one as the second disc houses all the features, starting with ‘The Journey of the Journey’ (00:31:02), which feels a little more personal than a standard making of, but at its core really is just that: a straightforward look at the film with the cast informing us of the Gulags of Russia, the other lesser known concentrations camps of the Second World War. This actually proves incredibly interesting in its bite sized chunk approach to the history and added a fair chunk of expanded info to the period as well as the making of the film.
The ‘Cast & Crew Interviews’ (01:18:00) are vast and feature no less than twelve different participants. These are all shot at the same time as the making of and continue to add more insight into the history of the historic events as well as the movie.
The ‘Theatrical Trailer’ (02:01), the ‘Teaser Trailers’ (00:36) and 'Gallery' (01:42 and set to the film’s score) pad out the extras disc a bit more and rounding everything off are the deleted scenes (19:09).
I didn’t really know what to expect from The Way Back but I have to say once the movie got going I was along on the journey with these escapees and really felt the emotional highs and lows of their travels.
The disc has a good but inconsistent transfer and incredibly good sound presentation, and features that give a bit of extra detail about the Russian Gulags and the characters' journeys. All in all this is great stuff.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 9th May 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Making of, Interviews, Trailers, Gallery, Deleted Scenes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris
Genre: Drama and War
Length: 127 minutes