Peter Weir directed Picnic at Hanging Rock, a 1975 movie so mysterious and terrifying and spookily beautiful that my desire to see it again feels perverse: I know another viewing will likely give me nightmares, but I expect they will be exceptionally intriguing ones. I am less tantalized in general by anything having to do with a Siberian Gulag, which is the starting point for the 68-year-old Weir’s latest film, a testament-to-the-human-spirit epic called The Way Back, on the grounds that fiction about Gulags tends to punish more than just its characters. But even if I didn’t have Picnic to encourage my interest, Weir has a few other major directorial calling cards, like Witness and The Year of Living Dangerously. Failing all else, memories of Gallipoli, his very fine World War I movie, would get me to the Gulag.
Perhaps it is fitting that the most recent of these hallowed titles was released 26 years ago. The Way Back is itself an old fashioned venture, about a ragtag group of valiant, determined prisoners during World War II who make an almost superhuman effort to escape Siberia on foot — across Mongolia, through the Gobi Desert into China and onward into British-controlled India (you can never put too many miles between you and an angry Stalin). The tale is not, strictly speaking, a true one: it is based on a disputed 1956 “memoir” called The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz, who claimed to have walked from Siberia to Persia. Screenwriter Keith Clarke, in researching the script, became convinced Rawicz based the book on other, true journeys, but did not make the trek himself. (Clarke found evidence of four Poles who did go all the way to India.)
The movie stars Jim Sturgess, the actor best known for playing Jude in Across the Universe. Here he does a fine job as the sturdy Janusz, a Polish man accused of spying on the occupying Soviets. He escapes from the Gulag and because of his outdoorsman skills, becomes the defacto leader of his fellow escapees — a motley crew including one genuine and dangerous criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian who possesses a handy knife and is thus worth putting up with. There is also Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an unfriendly American engineer who came to Russia to work on the Moscow metro and was tossed into the Gulag during the purges. An artist named Tamasz (Alexandru Potocean), an innocent named Kasik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a Latvian priest Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard) and a funny Yugoslav named Zoran (Dragos Bucur) round out the gang.
People are lost along the way — Siberia tends to take a toll — but near the shores of the vast Lake Baikal they pick up another companion, a young Polish teenager named Irena (Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan). Her femininity loosens them all up a bit, a predictable narrative turn nearly obscured by Ronan’s believable performance. With her sharp, somehow period-appropriate features and convincing accent, she fits right in, especially in her scenes with Harris. He could probably do a part like this — stoic, smart, reserved — in his sleep, but no one should discount his expertise simply because he makes it look so easy. As for Farrell, if you have to slog a few thousand miles on foot, having a companion as interesting as his Valka is essential. It is overwhelmingly satisfying to see Farrell continue the career rebound that began with In Bruges. A challenging, off-beat choice like this is worth a dozen Miami Vices.
This is not to say The Way Back is flawless. As the journey lengthens, key details (like food procurement) seem skimmed over, and overall there is the sense that the project was a vehicle for big dreams — Oscar campaigns for everyone! — that faded before the film was even finished. The last five minutes, featuring a pair of disembodied feet stomping across the screen to signify the passage of time and historical events, are unbearably clumsy and don’t mesh with the rest of the film. A plug feels pulled: you imagine someone in possession of the purse strings tapping their foot impatiently while Weir worked frantically to pull it all together. (And he must have been frantic; The Way Back is his first film since 2003’s Master and Commander and clearly a labor of love.) Still, the overall metaphor Weir was aiming for — this idea of enemies so powerful and a war so menacing and confusingly big that no place seems safe except a place absurdly far away — comes through clearly and stays with you.