The Aussie director’s first movie in seven years had its world premiere in Telluride. 
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6 Sep 2010 - 11:38 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 10:30 AM

A bold, superbly-acted, epic story of survival or a movie that may be too harrowing for mainstream tastes? The critics are divided over Peter Weir's The Way Back (pictured), his first film since 2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Based on the true story of a group of prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and trek hundreds of kilometres through snow and desert to Tibet and India, the independently financed movie had its world premiere last Friday night at the Telluride festival in Colorado.

The first reviews were full of praise for the performances by Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess and Saoirse Ronan, but opinions differ on its prospects for Academy Awards and box office success.

Noting that the Hollywood studios passed on releasing the film, In Contention's Kris Tapley declared, “I'm convinced it's an embarrassment and a blight on many records that the film and Weir have been left out in the cold, because this is quietly profound, epic, bold filmmaking at its very best.

“The film is unconventional in its depiction of a long march by Siberian Gulag escapees out of Communist Russia. But rather than becoming repetitive or aimless, the film's series of vignettes depicting the mundane particulars of survival (be it physical or psychological) is incredibly moving and consistently engaging.”

Cinematical's Eugene Novikov found much to admire but questions whether audiences will have the stomach to watch graphic scenes of suffering. “Despite its impeccable awards pedigree and prestige pic status, it may be too straight-up harrowing to get much traction, either with the Academy voters or at the box office,” he wrote. For those with the fortitude to take the plunge, it offers an intense, morally thorny exploration of the limits of human endurance.”

Deadline.com's Pete Hammond sees the film's epic journey of survival as a metaphor for the production's treacherous journey through the “current wobbly state of the movie industry, which just didn't seem to know what to do with this stunning adventure, the kind of movie Hollywood used to make all the time.”

Budgeted at $US30 million and shot in early 2009 in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India, the film was produced by Exclusive Films, part of the Exclusive Media Group, which also owns US distributor Newmarket; it was co-produced with National Geographic Entertainment and Imagenation Abu Dhabi.

Newmarket, which under different management released Memento, Monster, Whale Rider and The Passion of the Christ, plans to open the film in the US on a fairly wide 600 screens on January 21. Roadshow has the Australian rights but hasn't set a date yet.

Weir told Hammond the film was rejected by several US distributors and that one Hollywood executive told him, “We aren't in that kind of business anymore.” The director said he doubted he could finance Master and Commander now in a climate where he believes fantasy films have overtaken the drama-adventure genre.

“Everybody dreams they will be this year's Hurt Locker,” said Weir, who has directed 14 movies in a 39-year career that started with Homesdale in 1971. “You go out into this independent marketplace, and push and shove and jostle to find a spot so that's a little uncomfortable. On the other hand, it's challenging to find that path out to the public. It was pre-sold in European territories but I think people get naturally nervous.”

In Telluride, Weir and actors Colin Firth and Claudia Cardinale received Silver Medallion awards which recognise their significant contribution to the world of cinema.