Peter Weir is a director who does not, to put it mildly, knock out one movie after another. His last, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," came out seven years ago. After a series of collapsed projects, he's finally come through with "The Way Back," about a long trek by gulag prisoners to freedom. No doubt the subject hit home with him.
The film is based on a 1956 memoir by Polish soldier Slavomir Rawicz, "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom," that was subsequently, at least in part, discredited. (He was indeed forced-marched by the Russians to a Siberian gulag but he didn't escape, he was amnestied.)
Nevertheless, the film's core idea, that some people will do anything to survive even the harshest conditions, has a primal pull. This is an "inspired by" movie and is best approached in that spirit – i.e., don't hold the filmmakers accountable, folks.
It opens in 1940 in Russia-occupied Poland with the sentencing of Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish soldier who has been denounced on trumped-up espionage charges by his wife and sentenced to a Siberian labor camp. Janusz recognizes that his wife was likely tortured and his prime reason for escaping the gulag is to work his way back to her to forgive her.
The early sequences in the gulag are so hard-bitten and harrowing that the escape by Janusz and six other prisoners represents a liberation for us as well. Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke don't fill out these opening scenes with a lot of hokey Hollywood theatrics. Despite the presence of some well-known actors – including Ed Harris playing an American laborer who fled Depression-era America for work in Russia and Colin Farrell as a Russian mobster – a semidocumentary harshness hangs over these early scenes.
Because the climate is so killing, the gulag is not overwhelmingly well guarded. It doesn't need to be. The prisoners escape knowing full well that the elements will probably do them in faster than any guns or dogs. And so begins a 4,000-mile slog spanning four seasons through the frozen forests of Siberia, the plains of Mongolia, across the Great Wall of China and the Gobi Desert to Tibet, and, finally, the snowcapped Himalayas. It's a survivalist travelogue, and Weir, a detail freak, makes certain we experience every inch of the journey by offering up choice close-ups of blistering and bloody feet, hands, scorched skin, and pustules.
Weir's emphasis on the hypothermic rigors of the trek, the starvation, the dehydration, is, at least for a while, welcome in a genre that often skimps on the real stuff. But the downside is that the detailing takes over the movie. The characterizations of the people on this long slog – they are eventually joined by an orphaned Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) – are far less delineated than their dermatological condition.
Another, more fundamental problem is that, once the prisoners escape, their only real antagonist is the weather. They are always hiding out for pursuers who never arrive. There's an absurdist, Beckett-like aspect to all this, although I'm not sure this is what Weir was reaching for. More likely he was emphasizing the weather-as-antagonist scenario because he realized he didn't have any other options (although, since much of this material is made up anyway, why didn't he?). Once we leave the gulag, the bad guys are the sun, the earth, rocks, ice.
Weir has an epic imagination but, unlike, say David Lean, he doesn't fill out the epic vision with epic characters. The result is a film that seems simultaneously grand and skimpy. For all its faults, it's an honorable effort, though. I hope Weir doesn't wait seven more years for his next film. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image, and brief strong language.)
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