The Way Back
Imagine this. It’s Poland, 1940. Already not good. It gets worse. Under duress of unspecified torture, a young guy’s wife rats him out to cruel Soviet authorities, who call him a spy and send him to the gulag. For a while, the guy languishes there, like you do in a gulag. Then, gathering his inner reserves of fortitude and a few pals, he breaks out.
Not that there’s really anywhere to go. After all, the guy had been advised, upon his arrival, that “nature is your jailer and she is without mercy.” Given the sudden blizzards and the hilly, frozen, foodless void stretching for miles in all directions, that advice seems accurate. But then, in the gulag, a man can get stabbed to death just for having a sweater. So even with his pals dropping like flies from exposure to an increasingly life-denying wilderness, the guy keeps going. That is, hiking—across Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, across the Himalayas and across the whole historical swath of the Cold War, all to get home and tell his wife he forgives her. Are we talking husband of the year or what?
The guy is played, not unappealingly, by Jim Sturgess. His pals include Colin Farrell as a tattooed Russian prison thug and Ed Harris as a flinty American called Smith, who, when asked for his first name, replies, “Mister.” Smith also likes to point out that kindness can be lethal. That advice seems accurate, too, at least in this situation, and will be worth bearing in mind as various obstacles come up during the men’s journey—obstacles like the teenaged Polish runaway, played by Saoirse Ronan, who tries to tag along with them.
Come to think of it, that’s probably the easiest of the obstacles. For God’s sake, they are walking across the hinterland, hoping to get back to a civilization that was on the brink of self-annihilation to begin with. Seven escapees, plus one straggler, in a movie whose opening credits dedicate it to three individuals who made it through the aforementioned slog alive, which means we can not help but wait to find out who doesn’t make it, and why. It’s sort of like 127 Hours, except with a greater variety of locations and actors. Or like The Incredible Journey, except with people traveling 4,000 miles from Russia to India instead of animals traveling 300 miles within Canada. There is still the issue of the journey’s credibility—to wit an ongoing BBC investigation of this story’s source, suggesting first that Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 memoir The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom was fabricated and then that the events it describes actually did happen, just not to him.
But director Peter Weir, last seen at the multiplex seven years ago with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, doesn’t trouble himself over this tale’s veracity. (Hence the change of title to The Way Back, and the change of character names as well.) Instead Weir, who co-scripted with Keith R. Clarke, spends his energy on establishing panoramic grandeur. Viewers expecting a pulse-pounding jailbreak thriller will be offered instead a vivid meditation on endurance. And if the individual characters seem to come into focus only barely and briefly during this long haul, maybe it’s fair to consider that a matter of grand-scheme scale: the cosmic enormity of their soul-shearing ordeal. For any survival story of this magnitude to seem “true,” a surrender of selfhood is required.
Thus do we become receptive to larger thematic notions, like the general human determination to press on. Should these travelers die along the way, their thinking goes, at least they’ll die free. And that’s true enough, although in approximately the same way as Milton’s famous maxim, from Paradise Lost, that it’s better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven (just a reminder: That was Satan talking).
As guided by Weir’s practiced eye, Russell Boyd’s cinematography conveys the right ratio of reverence and foreboding: It’s a beautiful world, but you’d hate to have to schlep across it. Dramatically, The Way Back isn’t much more than a linear array of hardships, but what an array it is.