Painstakingly shot, frame by frame, with accurate writing and impeccable performances, and guided by the great Australian director Peter Weir’s impressive trademark attention to detail, The Way Back saves January from the dumpster and triumphs as the first great film of 2011.
This is the inspiring true story of seven desperate prisoners who escaped from a Soviet gulag in Siberia in 1940, during Stalin’s infamous “reign of terror,” and set out on a punishing journey across 4,500 miles of treacherous terrain through five hostile countries. With few supplies, they seemed doomed from the start, but this remarkable film (based on eyewitness accounts and the acclaimed Slavomir Rawicz memoir The Long Walk) is a hymn to their endurance.
The power of the film is the undeterred passion for freedom shared by this raggedy band of multinationals with nothing else in common. They preferred suicide to being a slave to Stalin. Faced with almost certain defeat, the hardships they endured and how they learned to survive through solidarity form the nucleus of a film whose indomitable spirit is contagious.
The year it takes them to walk through the snowy, sub-zero landscapes of Siberia to the broiling desert leading into India is an arduous journey not everyone completes, and I warn you that Weir’s unsparing documentation of their ordeal makes you feel like you’re part of the trip. Prolonging life by eating mud caterpillars and snakes, slogging through blizzards, frostbite, starvation, night blindness, wolf attacks, sandstorms and the constant threat from enemy tribes, the rituals this courageous gang goes through month after month re-define the word “harrowing.” Hope sinks when they finally reach the safety of the Mongolian border and they are dismayed to find the Communists got there first. The only passage to freedom is now a perilous trip over the Himalayas to Tibet.
They adopt a homeless teenage girl along the way (another performance of honesty and sensitivity by Saoirse Ronan, the extraordinary young actress from Atonement and The Lovely Bones). This frail refugee’s capacity to hold her own among the men who rescue her, laced with a blind determination to be free, form Christian undercurrents that add to the film’s human conviction, contrasted with Weir’s depiction of a vast, untamed wilderness. Astoundingly, he has created a thrilling backwoods world (thrillingly photographed by the great cinematographer Russell Boyd) populated by a small group of people driven to the edge of sanity.
Leading an exemplary cast is the versatile British actor Jim Sturgess. He plays Janusz, a Polish political prisoner falsely accused and tortured for being a foreign spy. His comrades include a cynical, de-sensitized American named Smith (Ed Harris), and a vicious, ruthless and terrifying Russian gangster named Valka (surprisingly well played by Colin Farrell, replete with convincing Slavic accent and tattoos of Stalin and Lenin on his chest).
The screenplay, by Weir and Keith R. Clarke, is uncompromisingly tough, yet despite the potent danger and epic action that keeps your pulse throbbing, there is also time to develop each character’s personality until you know them intimately and impart the terrifying feel of cold and infinite space that surrounds them. Pretty amazing for a movie that only cost $29 million.
Some may view The Way Back as another well-made but familiar escape epic; others will see it as a footnote to a part of World War II that American films have largely overlooked. But no one will go away disappointed or indifferent. The movie sticks with you like Elmer’s glue.