If you're going to base a movie on an amazing true story, it would seem essential that the amazing story actually be true. This is unfortunately not the case with The Way Back. Not entirely, anyway. The picture is drawn from a 1956 book by Slawomir Rawicz, a Polish army officer who claimed to have escaped from a Soviet labor camp in 1940, along with six fellow prisoners, and walked 4000 miles to freedom through Mongolia and Tibet and over the Himalayas to British India. Subsequent research has indicated that while Rawicz was a prisoner in a Siberian camp, he never took part in the hellacious trek his book describes. On the other hand, it does appear possible that another group of escapees did make this amazing journey, and that Rawicz, who died in 2004, might simply have been recounting their ordeal.
In the film's production notes, director Peter Weir acknowledges the ambiguity of this tale, but says that while Rawicz's book may not be completely true, it is probably accurate in its harrowing details, and in any case constitutes a great adventure. I think we can accept this reasoning. And the movie, which is very well-made, has much to recommend it. Working with cinematographer Russell Boyd (who also shot Weir's Master and Commander and The Year of Living Dangerously), the director leads us through some extraordinary environments, from the frozen forests of Siberia (actually Bulgaria) to the vast parched expanse of the Gobi Desert (actually Morocco). He also draws fine performances from the stars portraying three of the fugitives. The young English actor Jim Sturgess, playing Janusz, the Rawicz character, carries much of the film with a sweet, unwavering confidence; Ed Harris, as an American caught up in the Soviet nightmare, is appropriately skeletal and emotionally conflicted; and Colin Farrell—stubbly, feral and heavily tattooed—is entirely persuasive as an imprisoned Russian gangster the other fugitives bring along on their great escape, mainly because he owns a knife.
But the movie's tone is inescapably grim and grueling—at more than two hours in length it's also an ordeal for the audience. And since we're told at the outset that four of the men do make it to India, suspense is minimal. What we have instead is a long procession of set-piece sequences of deprivation and duress. The opening passages in the Siberian camp are vividly horrific—we see prisoners worked literally to death felling trees and laboring in mines, with little clothing to protect them from the near-Arctic temperatures, and even less food to sustain them. And once Janusz and his companions make their escape, in the middle of a furious blizzard, their desperation only increases. We see them cutting bark from trees for sustenance, eating worms and lizards, and sucking on cool stones and devouring snakes to alleviate their constant thirst. Fortunately, a runaway orphan named Lena (Saoirse Ronan, of The Lovely Bones), eventually joins the group on their journey, and her appearance briefly warms the story like a beam of sunlight, especially in her interaction with Harris' chilly American, who comes to see her as a surrogate daughter. (The lack of sexual menace when Lena arrives is a blessing, but the lack of even sexual tension seems odd. The director declines to explore the situation.)
Peter Weir is famous for his unhurried particularity in selecting projects: Master and Commander, his last film, was released in 2003; the one before that, The Truman Show, came out in 1998. His commitment to this story is admirable, as is his determination not to cheapen it with stock adventure-movie thrills. But the effect of so much unalloyed misery is exhausting. By the time Janusz and his three fellow survivors finally arrive in warm and welcoming India, our relief exceeds their own.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.