By the early part of World War II, the Soviet Union’s ultra-harsh prison system was already an established key to Josef Stalin’s paranoid dictatorship. Hundreds of concentration camps, called gulags, kept criminals and innocents alike trapped behind barbed wire, without edible food or minimal medical care. The most miserable gulags were the notorious Siberian compounds, stuck in such hostile sub-arctic territory that an attempt to escape was considered just another form of suicide.
One such frozen hell is the starting point for The Way Back, a visually breathtaking but icily uninspiring adventure saga from director Peter Weir. Based on a best seller that was sold as non-fiction but later revealed to be largely the author’s invention, it’s long on scenery and short on suspense. That’s because we are told at the start that it’s about escapees who slogged some 4,000 miles through Siberia and Mongolia to freedom in India.
First, we get a horrifying look into the vicious world that drove a few inmates to make a desperate break. At some point, dying in the frozen tundra seems preferable to unending communist torture. This is where we meet the main characters. Our main connection to the story comes through Janusz (Jim Sturgess, 21), a Pole whose wife is tortured into falsely naming him as a spy. He’s a relative babe in the blizzard compared to the other, more cynical and rugged captives. Valka (Colin Farrell, an Irishman delivering a tolerable Slavic accent) is a Russian gangster, covered with tattoos and bathed in angry attitude. Ed Harris, one of the finest film actors around, plays the cryptic American known only as Mr. Smith. An oddball assortment of Eastern Europeans (some played by Brits, others by Russians) joins the dangerous overland trek.
Talk about a rough trip. Not surprisingly, the first half of this two-hour odyssey is all about foraging for food, not freezing to death, and staying on a southerly course.
There’s plenty of arguing and suffering along the perilous way, but these characters are less captivating than the magnificent landscapes captured by Weir and cinematographer Russell Boyd. Weir, an impeccably gifted visual storyteller, brings his skill into a most challenging environment. If you liked his work on Master and Commander and The Mosquito Coast, you’ll appreciate the sprawling images that convey a sense of man’s insignificance in the face of Nature.
Although filmed in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, the movie makes us believe we’re stuck in Siberia and then caught in the infernal Gobi Desert. It’s spellbinding, but not at all pleasant. Some scenes remind us of the epic stretches in David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, but the screenplay by Weir and Keith Clarke, based on Slavomir Rawicz’s novel, “The Long Walk,” can’t approach those classics in terms on audience involvement with the central characters. There is one diverting surprise, in the form of a Russian orphan girl named Irena, whom the refugee prisoners allow to join their journey despite the hazards. Irish beauty Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), delivers the film’s most moving portrayal.
The agony and exhaustion of this incredible hike come through, which means this is not a movie to watch for fun. It’s one of those “testament to the enduring human spirit” kinds of flicks, complemented with superb photography and excellent performances that are nonetheless difficult to feel close to.
The 1080p high-def presentation has a widescreen 2.35:1 transfer, presented in AVC at a bit rate that varies between 15 and 20 Mpbs. The images are outstanding, capturing the fine grain in nighttime close-ups as well as the brilliance of a sunlit, snow-covered valley. Even the most dismal and deadly situations have a photographic life that you would not expect. The threads in worn-out gloves are as well defined as the trees and rocks in their grim environment.
We get one option, but it’s a good one: The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 at 48 KHz at 2.8 Mbps is well suited to the material and gives us an excellent take on the sound effects and the fine score by Burkhard Dallwitz. The subtitles come in English and Spanish.
The Journey of the Journey (30:57) Making-of featurette has interesting interviews with actors and filmmakers. Definitely worth watching, with historical information as well as revealing details about how the movie troupe functioned under rugged conditions.
Trailer (2:00) Basic stuff, useful if you’re on the fence about watching it.
For those with a love of historical fiction based in reality – this adventure may have actually happened but we don’t know who it happened to – this is a suitable way to share the experience vicariously. It’s also a lesson in how to depict an ugly ordeal in beautiful settings.
Bang it here for a Bonus Clip