Peter Weir's "The Way Back" is an old-fashioned prison escape movie with a touch of the epic about it.
The novelty in this “Great Escape” is that the prisoners – soldiers and political prisoners – are escaping from a Soviet gulag. They’re doing this early in World War II, so their odyssey must take them from Siberia, not east – to where the Japanese are overrunning China – or west, where the Soviets were first Nazi allies, now fight-to-the-death enemies – but south.
And as a quick glance at a globe will tell you, that means a trek from tundra to desert to the Himalayas.
Weir (“Master and Commander”) assembles a very good cast for this quest, from Colin Farrell, as a lifelong thief and murderous thug, to Ed Harris playing an American caught up in a Stalinesque roundup. There’s Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) as an imprisoned actor full of big talk about ways to escape this wilderness prison, and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) as an urchin also on the run.
Jim Sturgess is the lead, Janusz, a young Polish soldier tossed in among these other “enemies of the people,” stuck in the middle of 5 million square kilometers of nothing. Escape?
Janusz braves the fears of betrayal (the Stalinist state’s spy network of choice), the weather and the distance to get back to the wife he left behind. Others, a microcosm of humanity (a cook, a thief, etc.), join him in the middle of a Dr. Zhivago blizzard and make their break for it. All Janusz, who has a few survival skills up his sleeve, can promise them is that at least they will “die as men.”
Some will die, some will lose hope. There will be internal power struggles over which direction to go. And there will be every obstacle, from snow to mosquitoes, desert to mountains.
This film is based on a Slavomir Rawicz book, and for all it has going for it, Weir is a bit too fond of shots of blistered, nearly frostbitten feet. And Sturgess (“Across the Universe,” “The Other Boleyn Girl”) isn’t as interesting or compelling a presence as Farrell or Harris, supporting players who carry more dramatic weight and suggest layers of depth and pathos.
But it’s still a gripping adventure yarn, a movie that one-ups survive-the-wild TV series with real survival situations and showing just what human beings can endure in their single-minded quest for freedom.
THE WAY BACK
* * *
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Ed Harris, Mark Strong
Director: Peter Weir
Running time: 1:38
Rating: PG-13; violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image, brief strong language