Peter Weir’s “The Way Back” is an entertaining old-fashioned prison escape movie with a touch of the epic about it. The novelty in this “Great Escape” is that the prisoners — soldiers and political prisoners — are on the run from a Soviet gulag. They’re doing this early in World War II. Thus, their odyssey must take them from Siberia, not East — to where the Japanese are overrunning China — or West, where the Soviets were first the Nazi’s allies, now their fight-to-the-death enemies — but South.
And as a quick glance at a globe will tell you, that means a trek from tundra to desert to the Himalayas.
Weir (“Master and Commander”) assembles a very good cast for this quest, from Colin Farrell, as a lifelong thief and murderous thug, to Ed Harris playing an American caught up in this or that Stalinesque roundup. There’s Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) as an imprisoned actor full of big talk about ways to escape this wilderness prison, and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) as an urchin also on the run.
Jim Sturgess is the lead, Janusz, a young Polish soldier tossed in among these other “enemies of the people,” stuck in the middle of five million square kilometers of nothing. Escape?
“If nature doesn’t kill you, the locals will,” is their warning.
Janusz braves the fears of betrayal (the Stalinist state’s spy network of choice), the weather and the distance, all in an effort to get back to the wife he left behind. Others, a microcosm of humanity (a cook, a thief, etc.) join him in the middle of a Dr. Zhivago blizzard and make their break for it. All Janusz, who has a few survival skills up his sleeve, can promise them is that at least they will “die as men.”
Some will die, some will lose hope. There will be internal power struggles over which direction to go. And there will be every obstacle, from snow to mosquitoes, desert to mountains.
For all this film (based on a Slavomir Rawicz book) has going for it, Weir is a bit too fond of shots of blistered, nearly frostbitten feet. And Sturgess (“Across the Universe,” “The Other Boleyn Girl”) isn’t nearly as interesting or compelling a presence as Farrell or Harris, supporting players who carry more dramatic weight and suggest layers of depth and pathos that Sturgess rarely achieves.
But it’s still a gripping adventure yarn, a movie that engagingly one-ups the various survive-the-wild TV series by giving us real survival situations and showing just what human beings can endure in their single-minded quest for freedom.
Rating:PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Ed Harris, Mark Strong
Director: Peter Weir
Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes