×

The Way Back

An impressive but not especially immersive true story of four POWs who escaped the Siberian Gulags.

With:
With: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgard, Dragos Bucur, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong. (English, Russian, Polish dialogue)

After nearly a seven-year absence, director Peter Weir makes his long-awaited return with “The Way Back,” an impressive but not especially immersive true story of four POWs who escaped the Siberian Gulags and crossed the Himalayas on foot to freedom. Acquired by Newmarket Films immediately before its Telluride Film Festival debut, this arduous travelogue focuses on the macro (stunning, David Lean-like landscapes) and the micro (countless closeups of blistered flesh) to the virtual exclusion of compelling characters. While the name cast should aid overseas prospects, American auds won’t be going out of their way to experience this long, dry slog.

Weir, who veers from the specifics presented in Slavomir Rawicz’s book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” due to controversies surrounding its authenticity, gave himself room to fictionalize the epic journey. But the director clearly finds the voyage more important than the voyagers, doing little to dramatically enhance the story’s central group of escapees (which includes Jim Sturgess as an alleged Polish spy, Colin Farrell as a Russian mobster, Ed Harris as an enigmatic American and four other nondescript prisoners).

The film opens in Russia-occupied Poland, late 1939, to find Janusz (Sturgess) being denounced by his wife and sentenced to hard time in a remote Siberian labor camp — a frozen hellhole where the elements are just as effective as the guns, dogs and fences at discouraging escape. Weir fills these scenes with gritty detail, creating a vivid picture of Gulag life in a relatively short time. Between the bedbugs, bad food and brutal company, it’s easy to understand why Janusz would rather risk death on the outside, though Weir has another idea in mind: The protag must survive in order to get back to his wife (despite her betrayal), and the impossibly long journey will not end until he can do so (which explains not only the title,

but also a strange recurring vision of Janusz reaching for the front door of his home whenever things get tough).

Gathering half a dozen other prisoners, Janusz makes a break for it during a blizzard (we know from an ill-advised opening card that only three will make it as far as India). Driven by “kindness” and a need to forgive, Janusz immediately puts his survivalist skills to use on the outside, fashioning facemasks from birch bark and using tricks from his hunting days to steer them south.

The Russian guards give chase at first, but only for a few minutes, after which the suspense thaws in favor an all-too-linear account of the 4,000-mile hike. This takes the multinational group (whose conversation alternates between their native tongues and thickly accented English) around a mosquito-infested lake, across the Great Wall of China, through the Gobi Desert to Tibet and, finally, over the snow-capped Himalayas.

Along the way, Weir constantly shows the group hiding in bushes, as if to avoid detection by the communists they pass along the way, but it never feels as if they are in danger of being discovered. With no one in pursuit, the real adversary becomes nature itself, which threatens them with starvation, dehydration, hypothermia and a whole range of incredibly nasty foot injuries the director uses to reinforce the impression of unflinching realism.

The only person to pay them much mind is a parentless Polish girl (“The Lovely Bones’?” Saoirse Ronan), first seen lurking in the woods. When she begs to join them, the group’s grizzled pragmatist (Harris) warns that she will become a liability, while Farrell’s character (who resorts to eating bugs at one point) jokes that having more bodies could provide meat if things get dire. Fortunately, it never comes to cannibalism, and time soon endears the girl to the group. Despite Weir’s efforts to make us care about the characters, the humans are constantly at risk of disappearing against the immensity of their surroundings.

The bigscreen craves images like those in “The Way Back,” but audiences crave a reason to care, and however impressive specific scenes may be (crossing a sheet of thin ice and chasing a desert mirage stand out), for such a singular story, the film doesn’t feel particularly unique. “Mongol” managed to out-Lean “The Way Back” on the same turf (offering Genghis Khan as our point of entry), while true cons-on-the-run thriller “Van Diemen’s Land” told of an even more harrowing cross-country trek set in Weir’s native Australia.

The roles not designated to stars (namely, an artist and a comedian in the group) often blur together, while the others keep their feelings hidden from one another. Harris’ “Mr. Smith” and Janusz both have deep-seated motives for survival, which Weir doesn’t reveal until too late.

Popular on Variety

The Way Back

U.K.

Production: A Newmarket Films (in U.S.) release of an Exclusive Media Group, National Geographic Entertainment, ImageNation Abu Dhabi presentation of an Exclusive Films production, co-financed by Polish Film Institute, Monolith Films. (International sales: Exclusive Films, London.) Produced by Joni Levin, Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson, Nigel Sinclair. Executive producers, Keith Clarke, John Ptak, Guy East, Simon Oakes, Tobin Armbrust, Jake Eberts, Edward Borgerding, Mohamed Khalaf, Adam Leipzig, Scott Rudin, Jonathan Schwartz. Co-producer, Roee Sharon Peled. Co-executive producer, Alex Brunner. Directed, written by Peter Weir, based on the novel "The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom" by Slavomir Rawicz.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, Panavision widescreen), Russell Boyd; editor, Lee Smith; music, Burkhard Dallwitz; production designer, John Stoddart; art director, Kes Bonnet; costume designer, Wendy Stites; sound (Dolby Digital), Martin Muller; supervising sound editor, Richard King; re-recording mixer, Ron Bartlett; visual effects supervisors, Tim Crosbie, Dennis Jones; visual effects, Rising Sun, Visual Symphony, Crazy Horse; assistant director, Alan B. Curtiss, Robert Huberman, Todor Chapkanov; second unit director, R.J. Mino; second unit camera, Mark Vargo; casting, Lina Todd, Judy Bouley. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 4, 2010. Running time: 133 MIN.

With: With: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgard, Dragos Bucur, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong. (English, Russian, Polish dialogue)

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content