Screen Rant's Paul Young Reviews The Way Back
I don’t like to walk 200 FEET to get the mail everyday, so I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who can make a 4,000 MILE trek across an entire continent. That is exactly what a group of determined escapees attempt to do in The Way Back as they make the perilous journey from Siberia to India to gain their freedom.
The Way Back is loosely inspired by the book The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, who claimed to be one of the three men that survived the trip - though the BBC uncovered evidence to the contrary shortly after his book was published. Regardless of what is true or untrue, The Way Back is a compelling story with filled strong characters, believable scenarios and beautiful storytelling.
The story starts in 1939 with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish officer being interrogated by a Russian officer who is accusing him of being a traitor and a spy – something Janusz vehemently denies. Unfortunately, if the Communist Russian government wants you in jail then you WILL end up in jail. To prove this point, they torture Janusz’s wife for a false confession and then ship him off to a Gulag deep in the frozen Siberian tundra.
Once there, Janusz is tossed into a world filled with violence, mistreatment and deplorable living conditions. The men he lives with include actors, foreigners and murderers, and he soon discovers who he can and cannot trust. Janusz becomes close with an actor, Khabarov (Mark Strong), whose crime was starring in a film that the Russian government deemed traitorous. Khabarov claims to know a way out of the camp and together the two plan their escape. Along the way Janusz makes allies with several other prisoners – the American, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), Zoran (Dragos Bucur), Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), Tamasz (Alexandru Potocean), Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård) and the murderous Valka (Colin Farrell).
The escape scene is actually very short and seeing more of how they pulled it off would have been interesting; ultimately, all we get to see is a generator stop working then the guys in the woods running from dogs and soldiers. I understand why director Peter Weir shortened this part of the story, though, because the film is about the journey, not the escape.
With very little food, no water, one knife, some flint and only the tattered clothes on their backs, the group bravely endures the harshest weather known to man – but at least they’re free. As they hike south towards the Trans-Siberian railroad in an attempt to enter Mongolia (where they think Communism doesn’t exist), the men must avoid all villages for fear of being turned in to the authorities. Along the way they encounter a young teenage Polish girl, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who joins them in their travels. There are some truly touching scenes between each of the actors and Irena as she becomes the glue that holds them together, doing what none of them had done before they met her – engage in conversation. Over the course of the next hour, we watch the group as they survive a variety of wild encounters from wolves, frigid temperatures, a lack of food and a mosquito infestation.
It’s not a short trip by any means as the group walks for weeks and then months. When they reach the Mongolia-Russian border, they realize in horror that another thousand or more miles lay in front of them. This part will be the toughest as they cross hundreds of miles of desert and then trek through the Himalayan Mountains.
Weir has done a fantastic job allowing the audience to connect with the characters. I went through the same gambit of emotions the men did as exhaustion turned to elation, then to sorrow, then to despair, and finally relief. The last thirty minutes of the movie are the most powerful and are full of emotion as the harsh environment finally begins to take its toll. The last scene of the film had tears in my eyes as Weir brought all those emotions the characters and audience had experienced together on this epic journey full circle.
Peter Weir hasn’t directed a film since his epic sea-based movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but you wouldn’t know it by watching The Way Back. While the 133-minute run time feels a tad long and the film seems to drag for a bit around the halfway mark, Weir has still managed to craft a story that is fantastic, tragic, interesting, moving, inspirational and heart-warming - all at once.
If you want to watch a film filled with action, comedy or romance, then this is not the film for you. But if a compelling story filled with characters just trying to survive extraordinary circumstances sounds interesting, then you should definitely watch The Way Back.
Check out the trailer for The Way Back: