The Way Back is a 2 1/2 hour movie about a group of prisoners who escape a Siberian gulag and walk 4,000 miles to freedom. You’d think a movie with that much walking would get tedious. You’d be right. It’s an epic production filled with fine performances but there’s so much damned pacing that the damned pacing is off.
Across The Universe’s Jim Sturgess stars as Janusz, a Polish man convicted of spying against his Communist oppressors in World War II. He’s shipped to Siberia, where the very land is a prison and escape is supposedly impossible. But no prisoner is more motivated than Janusz, who is desperate to return home in order to forgive his wife, who betrayed him under duress. Janusz culls together a band of prisoners whom he needs to survive, including a stalwart American played by Ed Harris and a Russian thief and murderer played by Colin Farrell. They manage to escape the barbed wire but are unable to seek help in a Communist country for fear of arrest, so they stick to the woods and struggle to survive in some of the most inhospitable climates in the world, from the frozen forests of Northern Russia to the arid, endless deserts of China.
It’s an impressive tale of overcoming all odds in the pursuit of freedom, but like the Gobi desert it’s a little flat. After the initial oppression of the prison camp it’s up to Colin Farrell to provide the film with danger, always brandishing his knife and threatening to kill his fellow escapees for the meat. But halfway through the film he departs and director Peter Weir (Witness, The Truman Show) is left with a group of characters who pretty much get along. They’re still on the run but the threat is always potentially in their future, never hot on their heels. They combat dehydration and starvation and blistering heat and blistering cold, but without an actual character to provide conflict The Way Back loses most of its dramatic interest and instead focuses on how depressed the characters are about the length of their plight. I can relate.
The Way Back never turns into a bad movie, and fine performances by Sturgess, Harris, Farrell (who’s always better when he gets to go crazy) and Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan go a long way towards keeping the film’s rooting interest, but it just gets repetitive, kind of like this review. There’s only so much that can happen to people who aren’t allowed to interact with other human beings and have no antagonists. They’re constantly on the search for things that are dramatically revealed over the next crest, or discover that they were sleeping next to them all night without realizing it. Russell Boyd’s lush cinematography turns the film into an impressive travelogue (National Geographic helped produce) but Burkhard Dallwitz’s sometimes-lovely musical score frequently drops out entirely for extended periods, breaking The Way Back’s stride.
I was forgiving to The Way Back because it was supposedly based on a true story, and the filmmakers probably didn’t want to disrespect the history by making it too “Hollywood.” But it turns out that the whole tale has pretty much been debunked. Janusz didn’t even escape a gulag, and was instead simply released in 1942. So there’s really no reason why they couldn’t have added some damned drama to this drama. It’s all very ‘grand’ and ‘powerful’ but it’s just not very interesting to watch after an hour and a half. The Way Back suffers from serious injuries and learns the hard way that sometimes you just can’t walk it off.
CRAVE Online Rating: 6 out of 10