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.