Whether the actual journey in Peter Weir's The Way Back took place or not is inconsequential, even if the promotional materials label the escape from a Soviet Gulag as "inspired by real events". Similar stories like it occurred around World War II, and while the book by Slawomir Rawicz that the film's based on might not be plain-spoken truth, the details of this 4,500-mile trek across snowy hills and sun-baked earth aren't unlike other tales of the era. The key lies in how Weir -- a virtuoso with earthy beauty and intriguing characters -- paints this harrowing on-foot journey across several countries, studded with magnetic actors ready to substantiate this test of physical fortitude. He succeeds; The Way Back is a testament to survival that rises above restrained storytelling, throttled by a grasp on both the splendor and treacherousness that complicate the escapees' walk to freedom.
It starts in a frigid Siberian labor camp in 1940 where a hodgepodge of mostly political POWs shuffle between bad and worse working conditions, reaching a pinnacle within a collapsing mine. Gentle-natured Polish detainee Janusz (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe) frantically gathers together a group -- which includes an American soldier (Ed Harris, The Truman Show), a Russian criminal named Valka (Colin Farrell, Ondine), and several others -- and orchestrates an escape through the icy terrain towards Mongolia, with the first key landmark being the massive Lake Baikal. Each character harbors their own motivations for staying alive, focal being Janusz's desire to return to his wife (who, post-torture, labeled him a spy). Yet we're told at the beginning that only three of these men completed the long, arduous trek that they set upon, which creates a sense of anticipation in seeing who's going to collapse under the physiological demands, and why.
At its heart, The Way Back is a straightforward telling of a strenuous voyage to freedom, controlled more by a visceral depiction of the endurance-based anguish than a reflection on the journey. Peter Weir's cinematic flourishes give it a commanding and invigorating presence, with bits and pieces of his previous works peeking out; plenty of Master and Commander's veracity and Picnic at Hanging Rock's gut-churning tension shape the temperament, while the raw movement that powers Gallipoli also courses through its veins. Staunch composition can be seen within every one of cinematographer Russell Boyd's shots, which give the film expansive beauty in both the icy, grimy forests and, later on, in the flesh-baking heat of the waterless Gobi Desert. Weir's team garnered an Oscar nomination in Makeup for imparting the harsh conditions on an anatomical level, realistically capturing both frostbite and intense sunstroke to deeply-felt results. On the surface, which indeed matters in this case, it's stunning.
The moderately-fleshed characters in The Way Back aren't terribly novel, though, each latching onto tattered, reliable archetypes that characteristically adorn prison-break stories. Their rapport shapes into familiar off-then-on camaraderie as they progress through escalating conditions, studded with a grizzled military man, a renegade, and an idealist that all soften and sharpen expectedly amid their browbeating. An array of superb performances from Weir's well-selected cast distinguish them; Jim Sturgess carries the romanticist energy as Janusz, while Ed Harris counterbalances with stone-faced American practicality and Colin Farrell uses his signature coarseness to add a layer of magnetism to the knife-wielding Valka. The men form an indistinct band that doesn't really concentrate on their characters as individuals at first (unless they're about to bite the big one), only taking the meager man vs. destitution angle in its sight. But that's suitable enough for this tale.
Though it's a bit dramatically sterile at first, The Way Back experiences an invigorated rush of storytelling as soon as Irena arrives. Played by Atonement and The Lovely Bones powerhouse Saoirse Ronan, she's a straggler who stalks the men like a starving animal at first, slowly trying to worm her way into the "pack" as they move across locations. Surprisingly, she's the only non-conventional character in Weir's film, veering from the expectations that one might imagine for a young woman mingling with a crew of impoverished prisoners. Instead, her duplicitous conversations become the emotional anchor to their journey, driven by a low-key yet elegant turn from Ronan. She doesn't have many loud dramatic moments, but her complex poise as Irena --and her character's unique effect -- impresses nevertheless.
Once The Way Back completes its grueling trek, feeling every ounce as long as its two-plus hours, it leaves one in about the same state as the Gulag escapees: exhausted from all the walking, but glad to have taken the expedition. Picturesque camera work and a raw representation of the will to survive smooth over the leap-of-faith treatment to how they're able to endure the lack of water, food, and hospitable climate for so long, a fact meagerly clarified with the "inspired by true events" boast on the promotional work. A moose in the mud here and a puddle of water in the desert there offer some illumination, yet there's a lot of ground the film covers, a lot of desperation and time that passes. Yet there's also an urge to invest one's faith in the inspiring journey Weir paints across the world, and it's enough to make their weather-worn expedition an involving one, capped with an exhale at the close.
Video, Audio, and Special Features:
Image Home Entertainment sent over a theatrical/promo screening disc of The Way Back, which sports heavy watermarking and no special features. All that can be reported is that the 2.35:1 aspect ratio will be retained, and that it'll more than likely be enhanced for 16x9 televisions. DVDTalk will update this section of the review once it comes in.