Typically, any real-life tale of the Soviet Gulag is as bleak as the Siberian surroundings, and the result is a cold political allegory or a dark existential tract. But veteran director Peter Weir has something more transcendent in mind here. Drawn loosely from a true story, The Way Back is an escape yarn that morphs into an extreme adventure odyssey. Covering 4,000 miles, from frozen tundra and mosquito-infested bogs through scorching deserts and daunting peaks, the movie makes for quite a hike. It’s also, at times, a bit of a slog.
This time out, our Odysseus is a Polish officer named Janusz (Jim Sturgess sporting a come-and-go accent), who begins as a victim of the Hitler/Stalin pact early in the Second World War. Captured by the Russians, he’s packed off to the Gulag, where the film settles into its brief first act: the confinement.
Weir quickly sketches in the brutal conditions – fighting over crusts of bread, slave labour in the mines, the political prisoners who languish in the camp, the hardened criminals who run it. Among the latter is Valka (Colin Farrell), a Communist by choice and a psychopath at heart. He’ll knife a comrade in the gut for the shirt on his back.
A curiosity of history, there’s even a Yank in the crowd. During the Depression, several thousand Americans followed the promise of work straight to Moscow, only to be stripped of their citizenship and exposed to the Stalinist purges. Meet Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), a long way from home. After a few more intros, to two other Poles and a Latvian, the confinement phase gives way to the great escape.
Actually, the relatively easy escape. In these remote parts, iron bars definitely do not the prison make. As a guard bluntly puts it: “Siberia is your prison, nature is your prison.” So, on a winter night, seven men including Valka (they need his knife) walk into the snow, and into the third and longest phase of the movie: the journey.
Cue the litany of hardship and suffering. The freedom of India is far off, and nature’s dangers are a constant companion. If it isn’t hypothermia on the steppes, it’s sunstroke in the Gobi. Legs swell, feet bleed, heads hallucinate, and always hunger gnaws. A pack of wolves are chased off their carrion and replaced by a pack of men feeding with the same raw abandon.
Happily, en route they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a lost waif and fellow traveller whose addition to the band serves two useful purposes: Her innocence inspires the guys to a greater generosity of spirit; and her gender pretties up an otherwise all-male cast.
Weir, whose own résumé travels extensively from Gallipoli and Witness to Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show, checks off each disaster like the old pro he is, making the hardship palpable.
Also, there’s some obvious suspense to be mined here: Who among the eight will make it? Speaking of death, Weir does it very well – the expiring scenes are eerily quiet, a slow surrender in the battle with the elements.
However, the group psychology, usually so crucial in these sorts of survival adventures, is disappointingly thin here and thus robs the cast members of any chance at a nuanced performance – mainly, they’re just moveable pins on a big map.
That explains why the movie occasionally feels as wearisome as the journey and can start to seem like a travelogue with unlucky tourists – if it’s Tuesday, it must be Mongolia and, ho-hum, another damned sandstorm.
Consequently, the end arrives as an anticlimax that Weir’s final montage – updating us on the Soviet Union’s decline and fall – does nothing to alleviate. Yes, The Way Back is fascinating until it becomes an ordeal.
The Way Back
- Directed and written by Peter Weir
- Starring Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris
- Classification: 14A