War is hell. If that’s true, why are we subjected to yet another movie about World War II? Maybe it’s evidence of America’s cultural masochism, which is weird because I thought we liked inflicting pain on people, not the other way around. Peter Weir’s (“The Truman Show,” “Dead Poets Society”) “The Way Back” tells the tale of a group of POWs who escape a Siberian gulag and make a 4,000-mile march to freedom.
The film begins with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish POW interrogated under suspicion of espionage and sabotage against the Soviet Union. The Russians torture Janusz’s wife and force her to turn him in, so he is sent to a Siberian gulag to serve his 20-year sentence. The first act takes place in the camp with Janusz meeting the men who will escape with him, including an enigmatic American prisoner (Ed Harris) who refers to himself as Mister Smith, an actor named Khabarov (Mark Strong), a criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell) and four other prisoners. Together they stage an operation to escape the gulag into the unforgiving wilderness. Along the way they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who they reluctantly let join.
While the cast itself is rather impressive, “The Way Back” has one major flaw: The characters themselves never develop as much as one might hope. Janusz is shown to be kind, which somehow qualifies him to be group leader. Farrell steals the spotlight in the majority of his scenes and forces out his best Russian accent for his role. Ronan tends to be the focus in the center of the film as it’s her character that draws out information from the silent men.
“The Way Back” creates more sympathy from the general strife the group must face in order to survive than anything else. The film is a hiking adventure — minus the tent, shelter, food, water and s’mores — that prefers to play with the endurance of the human body rather than human souls.
The film is also not for the impatient moviegoer. Half the film is subtitled, although once the group escapes it is almost entirely in English. If you heard World War II and expected “Saving Private Ryan” then you will leave disappointed. Weir’s take on the film is closely related to the novel it was based on, and the film’s style harkens back to that of old adventure films. It definitely gives off a “Lawrence of Arabia” vibe on several occasions, even taking place in a desert for a third of the film.
With a powerful score, gripping characters, strong themes and wonderful photography, “The Way Back” is an overall success. It may not inspire adventurers to go running through the desert, but rather serves more as a cautionary tale mixed with a message of hope to the downtrodden. I did, however, get the feeling from the film that Weir also intended to make the movie as big of an anti-communism message as possible. Nevertheless, Weir keeps the politics light and the film does not suffer from preaching. Despite being a January release, it delivers a strong performance and is well worth seeing.