There are two movies in veteran Australian director Peter Weir's The Way Back. One is a rousing adventure yarn about a group of political prisoners who escaped from a Siberian gulag and walked more than 4,000 miles, over the course of a year, to freedom. The other is simply a movie about people who walked. More than 4,000 miles. For a freakin' year. The former is quite good—a stirring testament to the endurance of the human spirit and the unimaginable feats men will attempt in order to be free. Unfortunately, it's the latter that occupies the bulk of the film's 133-minute running time.
The subject matter seems ideal for Weir, who helped shape Australia's cinematic identity with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli before moving on to solid Hollywood fare such as Witness and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The Way Back certainly deals with some of Weir's favorite themes: man's struggle against deadly, if indifferent, forces of nature; cultural tensions and communication barriers; the unreliability of the senses. Even the controversy surrounding the film—The Way Back is based on a 1956 memoir that many suspect has been largely fictionalized—plays into Weir's fondness for subjective realities. So it should've been a spirited return to form for the 68-year-old filmmaker, who financed the $30 million production independently and shot it on location in Bulgaria, Morocco, and India.
Instead, it's one of the blandest and most frustrating films he's ever made. Things start off promisingly, with a brief but unsettling prologue that dumps Polish cavalry officer Janusz (Across the Universe's Jim Sturgess), accused of spying for enemy forces, in a brutal Soviet prison camp during World War II. Janusz, intent on escape, recruits a small team of fellow prisoners who are willing to execute a plan that seems suicidal. Getting past the guards and their dogs is the easy part; nature, they are told upon arrival, is their true jailer. If they manage to avoid being shot by the guards or torn apart by their dogs, they'll have to survive a trek through the foreboding Siberian wilderness with practically no supplies and a bounty on their heads, lest they seek refuge in a nearby village. And that's just the beginning—if they stop in a Communist country, they'll be immediately arrested or shot, so their only hope is a grueling journey, on foot, to British-controlled India.
It's an incredible story, and the film is well-acted and beautifully filmed. The members of the group, which includes a gruff American known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a shifty-eyed Russian gangster named Valka (portrayed, improbably but competently, by Colin Farrell), face every hardship nature can throw at them as they constantly battle hunger, exhaustion, thirst, and the elements. Part of the problem is the nature of their journey, and, therefore, of the film itself: It becomes repetitive to the point of predictability and mind-numbing boredom. The discovery of water, for example, is good for one dramatic beat, maybe two at the most. But four or five lengthy scenes where parched heroes summon their last bit of strength to stumble over rocky terrain and rejoice at the sight of a stream, lake, or puddle?
And then there's the walking—all the damn walking. They walk and walk and walk. They walk through forests, over mountains, and across deserts. It's always the same shot: The camera soars overhead as a line of intrepid pilgrims, shoulders hunched and heads bowed, trudge through whatever they're trudging through at the moment. Weir even makes the astonishing decision to end his film with a shot of walking feet superimposed over newsreel footage summarizing the rise and fall of communism in Europe. Yep, these are the walkingest people you'll ever come across.
We get a surprisingly complete picture of the hardships the characters endure. What we don't get, to The Way Back's detriment, is any real sense of the characters themselves. Each man is a collection of loosely assembled identifying traits that never really gels into a three-dimensional person. Things get a considerable boost when the group meets up with a teenage girl (The Lovely Bones' Saoirse Ronan) who joins them and acts as a catalyst for what little character development the film manages. But her introduction is too late, and her effect too little, to save the film. We care. We just don't care quite enough.