You can’t ask much more from a film: Peter Weir’s The Way Back is a great story, well-told, presenting a grueling experience in a respectable but palatable manner. It’s the story of prisoners in a Siberian gulag during WWII, their daring escape, and the hardships they face during an incredible 4,000 mile walk to India and eventual freedom. That may not sound like your cup of tea, but I imagine just about all audiences will be able to appreciate this film.
Jim Sturgess stars as Janusz, a Polish man accused of espionage by the Soviet forces in control of Eastern Poland during WWII. He refuses to admit guilt, but his wife is tortured and eventually confesses against him, and soon Janusz is off to the gulag.
There, in desperate conditions that see many of the prisoners in states of near-death, he meets a man named Khabarov (Mark Strong) who claims to plan of escape that involves a long walk south to Mongolia. Along with a small group of international prisoners that include Russian bandit Valta (Colin Farrell) and an American who gives his name as Mister Smith (Ed Harris), Janusz manages to break free.
Of course, getting out of the gulag is only the beginning of their ordeal: they have a long journey ahead of them, and it’s even longer than they imagine. Along the way, they meet a fellow escapee, a young Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) who says her parents were murdered in Warsaw. Through snowy tundra’s, vast empty Russian landscapes, the Gobi desert, and the Himalayas, the group’s numbers dwindle.
Given the story, The Way Back isn’t nearly as grueling an experience as I expected. It’s not so much of a specific survival story (survivalists may scoff at some of the luck the group encounters, like finding a well in the middle of the desert) as a tale of human spirit and the desire for freedom. It helps that the film is so beautifully shot by Russell Boyd, who was also behind the haunting imagery of Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock 35 years ago.
The cast is excellent: there’s always a danger when you have well-known English-speaking actors portraying heavily-accented non-English speakers, but both Sturgess and (especially) Farrell are fine (side note: from the range of nationalities portrayed in the main cast, only Harris plays a character of the same extraction as the actor). I was also particularly impressed with Dragos Bucur as Zoran, a Yugoslav businessman, and Gustaf Skarsgård as Voss, a Latvian priest.
The one element that rang false for me is the final sequence, set after the fall of communism in Poland. It’s an unnecessary scene that also feels improbable and illogical – a too-easy emotional tug to wrap things up that feels disconnected from the rest of the film.
I had one other concern. Watching what I had assumed to be an entirely true story, I was awaiting some end title scrawl that would let us know what happened to these characters. Nothing.
The Way Back is only loosely based on Slavomir Rawicz’s popular novel The Long Walk, which has supposedly been debunked in recent years; at least, records indicate that Rawicz himself didn’t undertake the journey. With evidence that some men did, however, Weir decided to adapt the novel anyway.
It was the right decision: The Way Back is a fascinating story, fictional or not. Still, I would have appreciated the chance to learn more about these characters.