Director Peter Weir brings much the same aristocratic touch to this tale of a band of prisoners escaping from a Stalinist prison camp in Siberia and trudging all the way to India that he did to his last film “Master and Commander” (2003), which focused on a British ship fighting in the Napoleonic wars. Again he elevates what might have been an adolescent adventure story by treating it with good taste, high-mindedness and elegance, even if the result is just a bit prosaic and emotionally detached. And like the earlier film, “The Way Back” has an epic grandeur that comes from its impressive visual scope and from locales worthy of National Geographic Entertainment, which is one of the production entities involved in making it—as well as from Russell Boyd’s expert widescreen cinematography.
The script, by Weir himself, is adapted from a book by Slavomir Rawicz that claims to have been based on real events—a claim that’s never been verified, and indeed has been widely debunked. But whether or not the narrative’s true, Wier’s picture is about as far removed from a cheeky, cartoonish effort like “The Great Escape” as could be imagined. It begins with the incarceration of Polish army officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess), who’s been captured by the invading Soviets in the early days of World War II and falsely accused of spying—a charge confirmed by his young wife after being tortured.
The first act of Weir’s film captures the mood of Solzhenitsyn’s “Ivan Denisovich” better than Casper Wrede’s 1971 adaptation of that book did, the atmosphere of cold and misery amply conveyed. But soon after being deposited in the desolate Siberian wasteland, Janusz—an outdoorsman certain of his ability to get through the surrounding forests—begins to think of escape, and before long he and a band of fellow prisoners breach the perimeter and make a dash to freedom. The long, arduous trek will take them through the snowy forests and the Gobi Desert and eventually into the Himalayas and across the Tibetan mountains to India and freedom.
Janusz is accompanied, at least along part of the way, by a gaggle of comrades (if you’ll pardon the expression). The most notable are a grizzled, taciturn American (Ed Harris) who calls himself Smith and is burdened by a load of guilt explained only late in the film; Valka (Colin Farrell), a rough, knife-wielding Russian thug whose primary instinct is self-survival; and Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a Polish girl who’s escaped from a Russian institution and links up with the men. But there are others as well, one who serves as the group’s cook, another as the inveterate jokester, and so on.
Along the way, some of the characters die (there are periodic shots of words being spoken over makeshift graves), and one simply leaves the expedition at the border. Eventually only four of the group reach their goal, and that after numerous narrow escapes from recapture or death. It’s by no means an energetic journey; Weir emphasizes the harshness of the terrain and the difficulty of the trek, eschewing the easy excitement with which other directors might have tried to pump up the material (although on one occasion he allows a diatribe on Russian anti-religious policy that plays on the heartstrings too insistently). Similarly, except for Farrell, whom he permits to chew up the scenery as the violent, scheming gangster, he holds the actors on a fairly short leash, with the result that the other characters seem a trifle bland, although all the actors—Sturgess and Ronan especially—bring considerable shading to their roles.
“The Way Back” isn’t an easy film to watch. In many respects it’s as grueling cinematically as the group’s journey would have been in real life—had it ever actually occurred. But anyone looking for a beautifully-made, if arguably over-refined, adventure story is advised to seek it out—and see it on the big screen, where it will make the best impression.