Painstakingly shot, frame by frame, and with accurate writing and impeccable performances, and guided by the great Australian director Peter Weir’s impressive trademark attention to detail, The Way Back saves January from the dumpster and triumphs as the first great film of 2011.
This is the inspiring true story of seven desperate prisoners who escaped from a Soviet gulag in Siberia in 1940, during Stalin’s infamous “reign of terror,” and set out on a punishing journey across 4,500 miles of treacherous terrain through five hostile countries. With few supplies, no medicine and only a pocketful of food, they seemed doomed from the start, but this remarkable film (based on eyewitness accounts and the acclaimed Slavomir Rawicz memoir The Long Walk) is a hymn to their endurance and a chronicle of their journey; it makes you want to cheer. The power of the film is the undeterred passion for freedom shared by this raggedy band of multinationals with nothing else in common. Preferring suicide to slavery and faced with almost certain defeat, they endured hardships and learned how to survive through solidarity, and it is this that forms the nucleus of a film whose indomitable spirit is contagious.
The year it takes them to walk through the snowy, subzero landscapes of Siberia to the broiling desert leading into India is an arduous journey not everyone completes, and in all fairness, I warn you that Mr. Weir’s unsparing documentation of their ordeal makes you feel like you’re part of the trip. Prolonging life by eating mud caterpillars and snakes, and slogging through blizzards, frostbite, starvation, night blindness, wolf attacks, sandstorms and the constant threat from enemy tribes, this courageous gang goes through month after month of trials that really redefine the word “harrowing.” Hope sinks when they finally reach the safety of the Mongolian border and are dismayed to find the Communists got there first–priests and monks slaughtered, Buddhist temples destroyed, religious consciences burned along with the villages. The only passage to freedom is now a perilous trip over the Himalayas to Tibet. Some freeze to death, and one man is lost forever, but the final tally is four, excluding the homeless teenage girl they adopt along the way (another performance of honesty and sensitivity by Saoirse Ronan, the extraordinary young actress with the unpronounceable name from Atonement and The Lovely Bones). This frail refugee’s self-assured capacity for enduring whatever it takes to hold her own among the men who rescue her, laced with a blind determination to be free, forms Christian undercurrents that add to the film’s human conviction, contrasting with Mr. Weir’s depiction of a vast, untamed wilderness that could only be the work of a higher power. Astoundingly, he has created a thrilling backwoods world (captivatingly photographed by the great cinematographer Russell Boyd) populated by a small group of people understandably driven to the edge of sanity.
Leading an exemplary cast is the versatile British actor Jim Sturgess, who was so memorable in the violent Irish saga Fifty Dead Men Walking. He plays Janusz, a Polish political prisoner falsely accused and tortured after being fingered by his own wife (in an act of self-preservation) as a foreign spy. His comrades include a cynical, desensitized American named Smith (Ed Harris) and a vicious, terrifying Russian gangster named Valka (surprisingly well played by Colin Farrell, replete with convincing Slavic accent and tattoos of Stalin and Lenin on his chest). The screenplay, by Mr. Weir and Keith Clarke, is uncompromisingly tough and crammed with testosterone, yet despite the potent danger and epic action that keeps your pulse throbbing, there is also time to develop each character’s personality until you know them intimately. Pretty amazing for a movie that cost only $29 million.
Some may view The Way Back as another well-made but familiar escape epic; others will see it as a footnote to a part of World War II history that American films have largely managed to overlook. But no one will go away disappointed or indifferent. It’s a movie that sticks with you like Elmer’s glue.
THE WAY BACK
Running time 132 minutes
Written by Peter Weir and Keith R. Clarke
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell