Weir limns gripping trek from Siberia to India in ‘The Way Back’
Imagine a 4,000-mile trek on foot from the frozen wastes of Siberia to Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert to Tibet, and over the Himalayas into India. It’s an incredible journey supposedly made by a handful of indomitable escapees from a Soviet prison camp in 1941, as depicted in The Way Back, another absorbing drama on the collision and collusion of man and nature from the formidable Peter Weir.
A filmmaker of soaring visual imagination who’s choosy about his projects, Weir has circled back time and again throughout his career to stories that involve figures in a wild landscape. From his eerie first film, The Last Wave, to Picnic at Hanging Rock, from Gallipoli to The Mosquito Coast, he’s drawn to protagonists struggling to survive and/or comprehend the mysteries of the natural world. Whether the 1956 book, “The Long Walk,” on which the film is based, by Soviet gulag survivor Slavomir Rawicz, is fact or fiction (as has been hotly debated of late, naysayers painting Rawicz as the J. T. Leroy of his generation), it’s easy to see how this epic tale of survival appealed to Weir’s visionary sense. Just as effective is the delicate web of human psychology he and co-scriptwriter Keith R. Clarke spin along the way.
The story begins in 1939, with Germany and Russia both invading Poland from opposite sides. Poles like young soldier Janusz (Jim Sturgess), are caught in the crossfire; when his wife is coerced into denouncing him as a spy, Janusz is shipped off to a Siberian prison camp surrounded by 5 million miles of frozen tundra. “Nature is your jailer,” the guards tell the inmates, political prisoners and career criminals all thrown in together. Death lurks in every shadow, from cold, starvation, inhuman conditions in the mines, or fatal run-ins with fellow prisoners.
Janusz is infected by notions of an escape route dreamed up by a Russian prisoner (Mark Strong), an actor arrested for playing a film role considered “too bourgeois.” Janusz’s perseverance, nerve and outdoor skills (he’s lived half his life in the woods) draw a mismatched band of rebellious potential escapees into his orbit. The old man of the group is a tough American loner of Finnish descent the others call “cowboy” (a sinewy performance by Ed Harris), who says his name is Smith. (Asked for his first name, he replies, “Mister,” with glint-eyed Harris aplomb.) Lowlife Russian criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) also worms his way into the plot, the only man in the camp with a real knife.
A small handful of men make a break one night, under cover of a fierce blizzard, woefully under-provisioned, but pumped up on do-or-die fatalism and bravado. Miraculously, they manage to elude the guards and dogs pursuing them, and flee into the forest—where the real drama begins. Janusz is a regular Junior Woodchuck in the wild; he teaches the others to build shelters, make snow masks out of birch bark, and find their true direction, while they’re all reduced to eating worms, stealing eggs out of nests and battling hyenas for food.
Fate has some other surprises in store along the way—like Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a mysterious young runaway following in their wake. Or the fact that by the time they get to the Mongolian border, China and Russia have become allies, making them fugitives still, and lengthening their road to freedom by another few thousand miles across unforgiving deserts and mountains—where a plague of mosquitoes, sandstorms, Mongol horsemen, and, always, patient, vigilant Death await them.
Weir and his longtime cinematographer Russell Boyd chart this harsh terrain in dozens of breathtaking vistas. But it’s the labyrinth of human dynamics that keep the viewer engrossed, from predicting the motives of wild-card Valka to the simple, yet devastating reason behind Janusz’s drive to get back. Sprinkled in among all the hardships are moments of terrible beauty, like the tenderness with which Death steals upon its first victim among the fugitives.
That the story might be fiction accounts for the stereotyping of certain supporting characters by their handy nicknames (The Actor, the Artist, the Funny Man). But true or not, Weir’s silent coda speaks eloquently to the tenacity of the human spirit.
THE WAY BACK
Watch film trailer >>>★★★(out of four)
With Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris. Written by Keith R. Clarke and Peter Weir. From the book by Slavomir Rawicz. Directed by Peter Weir. A Newmarket Films release. Rated PG-13. 133 minutes.