The Way Back is a grueling, stunningly photographed story of a group of prisoners who escape a Siberian gulag and walk... yes that's right, walk, 4,000 miles through five hostile countries to freedom in India. This sometimes-riveting film is grand scale entertainment though the tediousness of the trek is often disconcerting. Six-time Oscar nominated director Peter Weir (Truman Show, Dead Poets Society) returns to the screen after a seven-year absence with an epic yet by-the-numbers film adaptation of Slavomir Rawicz's novel, The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. The veracity of Rawicz's story has been challenged, so Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke try to address the authenticity by giving us the straight story.
Beginning in 1940 with an interrogation scene, we are thrust into serious prison life. But The Way Back is not the ilk of The Great Escape, Stalag 17 or Midnight Express, all of which focused on the inmate's tribulations. The time spent in the prison is short lived and the escape comes quickly. This has an indie budget Lawrence of Arabia feel, wherein the journey takes the characters from snow to burning desert to snow again. However, I wished the director had spent more time setting up the characters in the prison. But this movie isn't about prison, it's about the debilitating trek. Throughout the scenic slog, the men's will to live forces them onward as they endure sandstorms, mirages, snakes and mosquitoes. They are in perpetual motion with very little dialogue, drama, or conflict. Some parts were hard to swallow, like when these guys go all caveman, eating raw meat off the bone, but become gentleman when a young waif (Saoirse Ronan from Lovely Bones) appears. Even the morally bankrupt killer (Colin Farrell) plays nice.
Jim Sturgess (21, Across the Universe) as Janusz is wily throughout, while Farrell energizes the film, stealing every scene he's in as the silver-toothed, tattooed, violent and cagey Valka. If you're looking for the Ed Harris role of a lifetime, forget it. Harris, who always embodies his roles, has little to do here except to gruffly suffer along with his fellow escapees. The real star is cinematographer Russell Boyd, whose panoramic shots capture the stunning vistas and ever-changing environments beautifully.
Every character departs either by death or just by a different path with no grandiose Hollywood mainstream flair. Though filled with scenes of extraordinary survival, the result is oddly impersonal and indifferent. The Way Back concludes with a history lesson depicting Poland's 1989 solidarity triumph and a page from Saving Private Ryan, but the film is ultimately too slow and, well, boring - albeit in an "artistic choice" kind of way.
The Way Back
Starring Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Marc Strong
Directed by Peter Weir