The Way Back, writer-director Peter Weir’s first film in seven years (his last was Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) is a grand, sweeping epic populated by cyphers — an ambitious production in which the scale dwarfs the characters. Taking liberties from Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, a nonfiction book whose veracity was later questioned (the film’s credits refer to it as a novel), Weir tells the extraordinary tale of a group of POWs sentenced by Stalin to a frozen Siberian gulag in 1939.
“Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy,” a prison guard barks at the inmates, warning them that escape into the surrounding wilderness would be certain suicide (and if not, the bounty immediately placed on their heads would make them constant targets).
But seven of the prisoners (including Jim Sturgess as a condemned Polish spy, Colin Farrell as a violent Russian thug and Ed Harris as an American engineer) decide to make a break anyway, opting to risk the 4,000-mile journey to safety on foot using their meager supplies and their wits. The set-up is involving, and the fact that the story is based on true events makes The Way Back even more engaging — but only to a point. Weir intentionally adopts a brusque, unsentimental tone for the story: He wants to put you into the mind frame of these men who are facing near-impossible odds, barely know or trust each other and must deal with a new challenge with almost every step.
Alternating between the prisoners’ quiet scenes of dialogue and large-scale set pieces worthy of David Lean, The Way Back tries hard to convey the characters’ hardships from a first-hand perspective. But its stop-and-start feel keeps you from ever getting fully absorbed in the story, and events such as the men’s encounter with an orphaned girl (The Lovely Bones’ Saoirse Ronan) feel like clunky plot devices, regardless of whether she actually existed
Weir shot the film and snagged A-list actors without the support of a studio: This is, despite its big-budget scale and polish, an independent movie. But its overlong running time, along with boneheaded decisions such as the opening title card that tells you the exact number of men who survived, make you wonder if The Way Back might have benefited from constructive criticism from an outside observer. This is an impressive production and technical feat, but through most of it, I kept thinking about how difficult the filming conditions must have been, and not about the lives of the men in front of me.
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Alexandru Potocean, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgard, Dragos Bucur, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong.
Writer-director: Peter Weir.
Producers: Joni Levin, Peter Weir, Duncan Henderson.
A Newmarket Films release. Running time: 133 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, brief violence, adult themes. Opens Friday Jan. 21 at: area theaters.