The Way Back is director Peter Weir’s old-fashioned enactment of how a handful of World War II prisoners escaped a Siberian gulag and trekked 4,000 miles across the Himalayan mountains to freedom in India. The saga follows a familiar narrative path, with mixed results: The movie — the first from the fine Australian filmmaker since his 2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World — is handsome, well made, and based on a ”true” story by Slawomir Rawicz, the veracity of which has since been challenged. It’s also filled with scenes of extraordinary survival challenges. But the result is oddly impersonal and undifferentiated, even as some of the escapees perish along the way, whether frozen to death or starved or scorched by desert sun and thirst.
Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) plays Janusz, a young Polish prisoner with a plan for making his way to the Mongolian border. The band of characters who sign on include a tattoo-festooned gambler and criminal (Colin Farrell, being colorful) and an American prisoner (Ed Harris, being squinty) whose family had moved to Russia as Communist believers and then lost their faith under the tyranny of Stalin. Along the way they’re joined by a young girl (Atonement‘s Saoirse Ronan), who manages to wring further biographical details from her gruff traveling companions. The scenes of brute survival — hunting for food, improvising shelter, making wind-and-snow masks out of sheets of birch bark — are vivid. The men are not.
It spoils nothing to say that Janusz is among those who survive. But even the theoretically inspiring finale is muted by a news-clip-montage quickie history lesson about the late-20th-century reign and collapse of Communism. None of which has anything to do with how hungry men crossed the Himalayas and came out the other side. B