Their escape was just the beginning.
‘It’s not our guns or wire or dogs that form your prison. Siberia is your prison,’ a Soviet official proclaims to a miserable collection of prisoners new to the gulag, in Peter Weir’s dramatically compelling story of escape and endurance, The Way Back. The official points at the windswept, snowy forests that surround the camp. ‘Nature is your jailer,’ he continues, ‘and she is without mercy.’
But in 1940, one of those prisoners, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), leads an improbable escape from the remote prison, 4,000 miles on foot from Siberia to India. How improbable? You’d never believe it, if it weren’t for the movie’s assurances that it’s based on a true story. And since those assurances are suspect – at best, The Way Back is based on Slavomir Rawicz’s discredited memoir The Long Walk, and at worst, a tall tale – it may be just a little too improbable. Nonetheless, Weir’s movie is superbly made.
Janusz and his fellow prisoners must endure the cold, as nights in the Siberian steppes can reach 40 below. Then there’s the unrelenting thirst of the Gobi Desert. There’s hunger; in one memorable scene, they chase a pack of wolves away from a fresh kill, then descend upon the carcass, wild animals themselves. There’s even a plague of mosquitoes, which swarm the poor escapees unceasingly and nearly drive them mad.
Not all the escapees will reach their destination. (That’s no spoiler; an opening caption says as much, and even if it didn’t, the screenplay by Weir and Keith Clarke does an excellent job laying out the steep odds.) But in their long and difficult journey through taiga and sand, over mountains and under the Great Wall, they all achieve a certain heroic stature. Even if they must die, as Janusz points out before the trek begins, at least they’ll die free.
Standouts in the international cast include Colin Farrell as a Russian criminal with a big knife, and the exceptional Romanian actor Dragos Bucur (The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu) as an accountant with a quick wit. The touching Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) plays Irena, a Polish orphan who joins the trek along the way.
Best of all is Ed Harris, playing a reserved American engineer named Smith, and not just because Weir can explore the weathered crags of his face as if they were the valleys of the Gobi Desert. Smith warns Janusz that the Pole’s kindness might be the end of him, but when Smith forms a bond with Irena, Harris shows how the water of affection can enliven even the most sere of deserts.
That’s not to say that there’s much hugging and bonding in The Way Back; the movie is blissfully free of heroic speeches, swelling music cues, or overwrought death scenes. Weir has always been interested in men made small, fighting against the vastness of the world, whether it’s the Australian outback of Picnic At Hanging Rock, the raging seas in Master And Commander or the artificial universe of The Truman Show. Long, wordless stretches of The Way Back take that theme to its endpoint, with Weir’s camera capturing the pitiful crew as they struggle across the momentous, beautiful landscapes.
The Way Back diligently catalogs the outrages through which extreme cold, hunger and thirst put the body, and Weir’s camera finds the terrible beauty in his actors’ chapped lips, windburned cheeks and tenderized feet.
– Dan Kois, The Washington Post