By Michael Phillips 2020-03-20

Tribune Newspapers Critic

2 1/2 stars

"The Way Back" is director Peter Weir's first picture since the stirring "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (2003), a film that looks better every year. His latest is one of his sternest -- though, given the subject matter, and the film's strangely muted impact, one suspects Weir and his co-writer, Keith Clarke, were vexed by a basic storytelling question: How much hell do we put the audience through with this one?

It's based partly on Slavomir Rawicz's "The Long Walk," in which Rawicz (through a ghostwriter) relayed his experiences as a lieutenant in the Polish Army who escaped from a Siberian gulag prison camp. The World War II memoir, whose factual veracity has been widely disputed, remains in the words of Clarke "a great adventure story." It focuses on the lengths Rawicz and six others went to in order to become free men, eluding their Soviet captors, contending with an excruciating 4,000 miles of Siberian forest, the plains of Mongolia, sandstorms in the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas. Some lived; some did not.

Weir's film is fiction, taking a lot from the memoir and a lot more from other accounts of Soviet gulag survivors. The movie is half prison film and half raw-survival saga, photographed in Bulgaria, Morocco and India. The entryway character, accused Polish spy Janusz (Jim Sturgess), lands in the same lice-ridden camp as an American engineer (top-billed Ed Harris) and a Russian street thug (Colin Farrell) who more or less runs the gulag to his liking. The escapees eventually pick up a Polish refugee (Saoirse Ronan of "Atonement" and "The Lovely Bones") who, some fear, will slow down the group's progress.

Weir has a way with remote and challenging landscapes. Here, though, the characters and their interactions are stuck halfway between "the facts," or the research used for the script, and old-fashioned dramatic necessity. The writing can get pretty prosaic. "I can't see anything!" one man says at one point, adding, pointlessly: "The snow is blinding us!" The multinational cast, anchored by Harris and Sturgess, commits fully to the challenges. But Weir and editor Lee Smith seem preoccupied with hustling events along, and nervous about boring us for even a second. The result is a brisk trot through a story that is, at heart, a tough slog.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language and some sexual content).

Running time: 2:13.

Cast: Ed Harris (Smith); Jim Sturgess (Janusz); Saoirse Ronan (Irena); Colin Farrell (Valka); Mark Strong (Khabarov); Gustaf Skarsgard (Voss).

Credits: Directed by Peter Weir; written by Weir and Keith Clarke, adapted freely from the book "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz; produced by Joni Levin, Weir, Duncan Henderson and Nigel Sinclair. A Newmarket Films release.

Back to Movie Details

Movie News