A guard in a gulag announces, “It’s not our guns, or dogs, or wire that form your prison. Siberia is your prison… Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy.” It is 1940, and a young Polish man Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who has been sent to a gulag meets the friendly Khabarov (Mark Strong), the hardened “Mr. Smith” (Ed Harris), and the violent Valka (Colin Farrell). Eventually, a group of prisoners escape, only to face their true captor, the harsh landscape.
Based on a dubious memoir by Sławomir Rawicz, The Way Back features stunning scenery and remarkable displays of human resilience. Thanks to Janusz’s survival skills, he leads the men through the forbidding tundra to Mongolia. From there, the prisoners must cross the Gobi Desert and venture into the Himalayas.
Director Peter Weir has an original touch, even with more straightforward works. The gulag is as stark and detailed as the nature scenes are gorgeous and haunting. Harris, as a tough old American, gives a particularly good performance, as do Strong and Sturgess, but the appearance of Saorsie Ronan as a young woman who joins them feels forced, perhaps to add sentiment.
Most of the actors speak with false accents, the potentially intriguing characters are not wholly rounded, and the movie is too long. Ultimately, the conclusion does not measure up to its powerful premise. The film remains believable because of its ostensible status as a true story, but the story might not be true at all. Still, for those who can stomach both tension and slowness, The Way Back, with its lovely soundtrack and striking setting, is not a bad film.