Ed Harris in The Way Back (2010)

One Way Back

"The Way Back" starts by telling us about 3 men who arrived in India having walked 4,000 miles after escaping a Russian Gulag in Siberia. That comes from Slavomir Rawicz's novel which is reportedly based on a true story but there are some doubts whether it is true and unfortunately that is a shame as if "The Way Back" was definitely a true story it would make it all the more impressive. The lack of provenance is not the only problem as whilst Peter Weir's movie is visually stunning it suffers from other problems most notably that of unidentifiable characters who merge into a collective rather than being individuals. Yet it has to be said that whilst flawed "The Way Back" is also captivating buoyed by good actors and camera work.

After being betrayed by his wife Janusz Wieszczek (Jim Sturgess - Crossing Over) is thrown into a Siberian Gulag where he meets American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), actor Khabarov (Mark Strong) and is made aware to stay away from Valka (Colin Farrell - Crazy Heart) an evil Russian criminal. With the likelihood of surviving the brutal prison life slim Janusz along with a small group including Smith, Khabarov and Valka escape and start a trek across country in freezing temperatures, acting like savages to get food all in an attempt to make it to India and freedom.

Colin Farrell in The Way Back (2010)

As I said Slavomir Rawicz's novel on which "The Way Back" is based is supposedly a true story but there have been doubts about it as evidence has come to light to refute his claims. It is a shame because the whole idea that this is a true story is part of the movies appeal, the dogged determination of a group of people to survive in extreme conditions whilst also battling hunger and thirst. In fairness there probably were some miraculous escape stories involving soldiers making extreme treks but because we have this doubt over the story it spoils things slightly.

That is not the only thing which spoils "The Way Back" as we have a problem with the characters. Peter Weir tries to establish individuals from the blood thirsty Valka to the more cynical Mr. Smith but these characters don't end up strong individuals and at times merge into this collective of people walking across various terrain. Now this brings up an interesting point because we have actors such as Colin Farrell and Jim Sturgess delivering Russian and Polish accents which often make it hard to understand what they are saying. Now if this had been made 50 years earlier there would have been no attempt and we would have had clear American and English accents which would have been technically wrong but would have made it easier for the individual characters to stand out.

But my problems don't stop there because whilst Weir and his crew deliver captivating scenery, doing an amazing job of highlighting the battles they faced be it from the snow, ice and even heat further on in there trek the element of survival is lost. This is the sort of movie which needs to have a boys own element, showing us the creative ways they survived, got food, water and so on but it doesn't show them. Maybe that was because Weir wanted to avoid cliche and he certainly does that elsewhere in the story when these men are joined by a Polish girl they find in the woods, ignoring any cliche romantic scenes. But I wanted to watch more than just these people walking across terrain; I wanted to see wartime survival ingenuity.

The thing is that whilst "The Way Back" ends up a flawed movie it is still surprising captivating with great location shots, camera work and a sense of camaraderie which forms between the group. Despite the fact that at times the characters tend to melt into one it is also helped by a few recognizable faces such as Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan who shows up as Irena the Polish girl. Maybe it is because the faces are familiar more than anything which helps but it allows us to see them occasionally as individuals.

What this all boils down to is that "The Way Back" is certainly worth watching if you have a couple of hours to spare because it is captivating. But at the same time it is flawed and lacks some of the cliche elements which the movie needed to make it come alive.