Seven desperate men of various nationalities bust out of a World War II Soviet prison work camp and slog 4,000 torturous miles, traversing five hostile countries — through blinding blizzards, over a water-less Gobi Desert and across the rugged Himalayas — to freedom. That’s the adventure the award-winning director Peter Weir shares with viewers of The Way Back, his first film since 2004’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
While Weir knows how to communicate survival tales set in formidable exotic environments (he brought us, after all, The Year of Living Dangerously and The Mosquito Coast), here, for some reason, the drama is less compelling than the setting. And while we feel compassion for the characters, we aren’t so moved by their human interplay as we were by the similar (though post-apocalyptic) tale told in 2009’s The Road.
Weir loosely based The Way Back on the bestselling but factually discredited memoir The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz, as well as on accounts Weir and fellow filmmakers gathered from other gulag escapees and witnesses. The actors playing the ragged but hearty escapees — who eventually dwindle to number just four — are a talented bunch, and their performances here are outstanding. There’s the British actor Jim Sturgess, known for 21 and The Other Boleyn Girl, who plays a Polish military officer falsely betrayed to the Soviets as a spy. And there’s Ed Harris as Mr. Smith, an American who moved to Russia to find work and got caught in a 1940 Stalinist purge. Colin Farrell does an amazing job as the scrappy and scary Russian gangster Valka, whose chest bears tattoos of Stalin and Lenin, and who utters authentically accented dialog through some seriously decayed teeth, thanks to the wonders of makeup. Finally, actress Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones, Atonement) is haunting as a Polish street youth who latches onto the group along the way. Each conveys a tragic determination as they walk for a year through circumstances that will make you think twice about complaining ever again — but somehow their journey is tedious.
What will keep you in your seat for this 133-minute saga is the film’s breathtaking cinematography. Shot in India, Morocco and Bulgaria, The Way Back takes you deep into subzero Siberian forests, through desert sandstorms, across the Great Wall of China and into the rocky landscape of Tibet. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who won an Oscar for Master and Commander, catches every detail of these ruthless environments, imbuing the film with a gorgeous authenticity.
Unfortunately, Weir hurries to the finish, forcing a hard-to-believe sentimental story line in his conclusion. His film, in the end, is flawed, but take the journey anyway — if only to witness the performances and the magnificent scenery.