Filled with overpowering landscapes and spectacular desolation, and based on a supposedly true story, Peter Weir's The Way Back gives us an often riveting vision of escape and the wilderness.
In 1940, seven prisoners break out of a Siberian gulag and travel 4,000 miles on foot through Siberia, Mongolia and Tibet to the safe haven of India. The movie hurls them into wolf-infested forests, vast scorching stretches of the Gobi desert and the snowy Himalayas. Along the way, this band is joined by another fugitive/pilgrim, a fragile-looking young woman named Irena (Saoirse Ronan).
As the grueling journey proceeds, some of the prisoners die, some survive and all are constantly battered and tested. There may be soldiers somewhere, too, ready to take them back to the gulag. But as the prison commandant tells the newly arrived prisoners at the beginning - including the main character, the Polish political frame-up victim Janusz (Jim Sturgess) - it is the land itself that is their jailer, their nemesis.
The Way Back is an old-school adventure movie shot on stunning real locations without CGI enhancement or technical trickery, and it has a frequently overwhelming visual impact. Few filmmakers can wring more mystical splendor and dangerous-looking beauty out of a landscape than Weir - especially when he's joined by his fellow Australian, cinematographer Russell Boyd (an Oscar winner for Weir's last film, the 2003 sea saga Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Together, they lavish on Way Back all the gifts for outdoor moviemaking Weir displayed in films like Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Despite a good cast, the dramatic elements aren't as strong. Janusz is a protagonist with a kind heart but few interesting quirks. Of the others - who include an artist and a vulnerable youngster - the most forcefully drawn are Irena, the taciturn American escapee Smith (played broodingly by Ed Harris), and the Stalinist thug and killer Valka (an explosive Colin Farrell).
I said the story was supposedly true because its source, Slawomir Rawicz's 1956 book The Long Walk, was recently attacked by investigators who claim that he was actually released by the Russians in 1942, and that the escape and trek never happened. And frankly, the dramatic elements of the movie don't always feel especially true. Against these landscapes, the characters enact what can feel like a typical adventure-movie fable of suffering, quest and redemption.
But that's not bad. Weir and Boyd make sure that the landscapes around those escapees have their own fierce truth.