Look up Siberia on a Google maps. Now ask Google for directions from Siberia to Darjeeling, India. Google will happily show you a map with both ends of the journey, but has zero idea how one might drive from Siberia to Darjeeling. Now, while looking at the map, imagine walking it. “The Way Back” is the incredible true(-ish)story of a group of escapees from a gulag desperate enough to attempt such a trek in the 1941.
“The Way Back” stars Jim Sturgess as Janusz, a Pole caught between a rock and a hard place, aka Germany and the USSR, who is sent to a gulag on charges of being a spy. There he meets a motley crew of dissidents and criminals all equally eager to escape the horrors of Stalin’s camps.
Director Peter Weir makes his first mistake before you even see a single shot of his film, as a title card informs you exactly how many people arrived at the end of the journey in India. Knowing exactly how man people walk down out of the Himalayas and into India goes a long way toward sucking some of the drama out of the film.
And Weir totally punts on the back-end of the journey. After crafting these epics scenes of his heroes trudging across the Siberian tundra, the relentless deserts of Mongolia and he seemingly endless expanses of China, the last leg of the walk, the one across the Himalayas is presented as a brisk jaunt to the corner store. The whole walk across the most famous, indomitable mountain range on Earth is dismissed with a 30-second montage. It’s a wicked letdown, to say the least.
It’s shame that Weir frames his tale with such pointless rookie blunders, because in addition to the great source material, he gets outstanding performances from his entire cast, especially Ed Harris and Colin Farrell.
Harris plays a loner America who fled his homeland during the Depression to seek out work building subway systems in Moscow. He's as grizzled as grizzled can be, chastising Janusz for his shows of kindness to their fellow inmates who are ill and/or starving. “Kindness will get you killed,” is his motto. Farrell, meanwhile, is a Russian street thug, all tats and mangled teeth, quick with a knife, ready to kill a man for his sweater, not for warmth but to pay off a debt for sausages.
Weir follows the rules of the gang prison escape, populating his cast with the lone wolf, the principled one, the cut-up, the man of faith… It’s your standard fare, but it mostly works, except when Weir fails them, which is just often to keep “The Way Back” from realizing its potential.
The home video package offers a 30-minute featurette about the filing of the movie that’s not great but has some interesting background on how Weir chose his locations, and confirms your long-held suspicions that Ed Harris is a bit of a crank—not a jerk, just a guy who’d prefer to be alone, thank you.
"The Way Back" is being released this Friday on DVD and Blu-ray