The Way Back is a quest movie: During World War II, a small group of prisoners escapes from a Siberian labor camp and endures a grueling journey toward what they hope will be freedom.
That sounds like good film fodder, especially for epic-minded director Peter Weir, who last gave us the terrific Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). And at times The Way Back is good, if not great. It introduces us to a motley crew of people who have come to realize that the physical horrors (endless hard labor, unforgiving weather) in Siberia will kill them if they don’t get out. Of course, they’re in the middle of nowhere, they don’t know or trust each other, they have no food or supplies for what will certainly be a punishing voyage ... and the list of things working against them could go on. At least, in the world of this film, they all speak some English, so they can communicate.
The Poles and the Russians, along with one American (Ed Harris), gather their wits and head out. Before it’s over, they cross deserts and mountains and flat plains, they deal with hunger and thirst and other creatures that are dealing with hunger and thirst, and they come together as a sort of family.That’s probably all you should know about the film. You don’t want to know if they make it to their goal of India, because that would take away a whole layer of tension. You just want to know that seven of them start the trip. That’s enough to make you sit back, feel their pain (and their few triumphs), and wonder what’s going to happen next.
If that’s what you’re looking for in a movie like this, here’s some advice for you. At the very beginning of the film, right after the names of the studios who made it have gone by, right when a paragraph pops up that starts with the year 1941, close your eyes. And keep them closed for 30 or 40 seconds. For some reason, the filmmakers have chosen that spot to tell exactly what happens at the end of the film, literally giving away what shouldn’t be known till seconds before the end credits run. There very well could be some viewers who want to know such things before they hunker down to watch a movie, but it took me a good 10 minutes to get over feeling completely deflated by that unnecessary reveal at the start.
Fortunately, by Minute 11, I was back into the grip of it all. Weir has always had a great way of making his characters look and feel tiny when placed up against the power and fury of nature. (Check out The Last Wave.) He uses that approach through most of the film, allowing only small pieces of personalities to show through. We get that Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is the guy with leadership skills, and that Valka (Colin Farrell) is someone whom you should not trust but can depend on, and that Irena (Saoirse Ronan), the young woman they find along the way, is craftier than they think.
Backstories — which might have been more effective earlier on — are saved for the film’s final reel. So are the trip’s biggest hazards, which the dwindling group (yes, we lose some along the way) manages to handle with remarkable and, to be honest, not very believable dexterity.
It’s all starkly beautiful to watch, and it’s capped with a satisfying story arc. But it goes on too long (133 minutes) and shows too many of its cards. Whatever you do, don’t watch the trailer before seeing the film. It gives away even more that you don’t want to know.