Director: Peter Weir
It is 1941 and Polish political prisoner Janusz leads an escape from one of Josef Stalin’s Russian gulags in Siberia. The eclectic group go on the run and begin an epic 4,000 mile walk to India and freedom, determined to survive both the rough terrain, harsh elements and passage through the vast Communist territories ahead of them.
Director Peter Weir has often shown a fascination with tales of mankind against the elements, be it the Central American jungles of The Mosquito Coast or the unforgiving seas of Master and Commander, and he continues his theme with this, his first film for nearly eight years. The Way Back is based on the book The Long Walk by former Polish prisoner Sławomir Rawicz, who claimed the events were true, only for those claims to be later refuted, and someone else come forward and declare that the story was his. Whatever the veracity of the source material, The Way Back remains a fascinating tale.
Weir wastes no time in illustrating just why anyone would be driven to attempt such a journey. The gulags of Siberia were terrible places, where ‘enemies of the people’ were placed for the most arbitrary of reasons. Cold, dirty and ruthlessly run by criminal inmates, it is little wonder that Janusz, imprisoned on the basis of a confession from his own wife, decides to make a break for it. Enlisting the aid of several fellow prisoners, including Ed Harris as the American Mr. Smith and Colin Farrell as Russian thief Valka, his small band escape during a blizzard and, with little in the way of provisions, begin to head South on a journey that takes in the snows of Siberia, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas.
It is in capturing both the stunning beauty and cold disregard of these landscapes that Weir, with funding from National Geographic, exhibits his greatest strengths. This is a movie that, while celebrating the exuberance and determination of the human spirit, reminds us that we are very much at the mercy of the world we live in, passers-by in landscapes that can grind us to dust. As the group progress and fight starvation, exposure and exhaustion, it becomes clear that not everyone will make it to the end. But those that don’t are celebrated for dying as free men.
As leader of the group by default, Jim Sturgess’ Janusz is a solid central presence, the will of the group when they falter. Ed Harris brings his usual gravitas and quiet dignity to proceedings and Colin Farrell finds the endearment in his violent, loutish Valka. Saoirse Ronan is perhaps a little underused as another Polish refugee the group pick up along the way, and there is sometimes a general lack of exploration of the characters on the whole. But when you have the land itself as your lead performer, this is understandable. The power of the story doesn’t suffer too much from it.
The Way Back seems like it was rather neglected on its initial cinema release. Hopefully with its DVD release it will pick up more of an audience. It deserves to.