"The Way Back" is a return to the historical epics of David Lean, a story of survival under unthinkable physical and spiritual hardship.
The film dramatizes the real-life saga of three prisoners who in 1940 escaped a Soviet prison and walked 4,000 miles across Siberia, over the Himalayas and on to refuge in India.
Four-time Academy Award best director nominee Peter Weir controls the sprawling tale masterfully, balancing subtle but unmistakable Christian symbolism against sharp-eyed attention to physical details. After the opening scenes of squalid gulag life you may find yourself itching from psychosomatic bedbug bites.
Our surrogate is Janusz (Jim Sturgess), sentenced to the freezing gulag after his wife, coerced by torture, denounces him as a foreign agent. His fellow inmates are slave laborers, felling trees and smashing rocks in the mines; few expect to survive until their far-off release.
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Echoing a warning speech by the Japanese prison-camp commander in Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai," the Russian warden tells the new arrivals that they are imprisoned not by the barbed wire and guards but the unforgiving wilderness beyond. That may explain the ease with which Janusz and a few comrades breach the wall in mid-blizzard.
The escapees include an enigmatic American who calls himself Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and Valka (Colin Farrell), a vicious criminal and proud Stalinist fleeing prison gambling debts that might cost his life. When the men and a few others begin their great escape, dialogue mostly evaporates. These are hard, taciturn men, played by actors burrowed in deep.
The liveliest exchange is between two haggard pilgrims who squabble over the recipe for an imaginary roast chicken as if it were that night's dinner. Their actual diet is what little they can catch. In Farrell's case that means wolfing down a wriggling caterpillar with delirious ecstasy.
There is no search party in pursuit of these insignificant runaways. What imperils them is the harsh terrain, brutal weather, disease and exhaustion.
Cinematographer Russell Boyd's evocative long shots reduce the escaped men to the size of the bugs that bedeviled them in the gulag.
The deliberately paced film uses silence and vast panoramas of Siberia and the Gobi Desert to emphasize the scope of the journey. It is repetitive, to be sure, but how else can such an ordeal be represented?
There are mild and forgivable moments of plot manipulation. Saoirse Ronan appears as a girl running from a collective farm, and her youthful energy gives the group dynamic a jolt of juice. In time, though, she is worn down by the trek, trudging as wearily as the exhausted men.
The script largely avoids the neat, standard scenes of selfless sacrifice and character revelations. Death plucks off characters with indifferent cruelty.
The film's religious subtext offers a grace note alongside such rock-ribbed realism. There are allusions to baptism and crucifixion, Judas and the good thief, halos and crowns of thorns. Janusz is driven to escape so he can offer forgiveness to his wife.
The film ends with a misfire, a literal march-of-time newsreel that charts the postwar decline of communism as a pair of boots tramps forward across the years to a sentimental and credulity-straining reunion scene. It's an unfortunate finale to a film that covers so much ground with so few stumbles.