In 1940, as the Second World War raged in Europe, one Pole, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) had been exiled to a Siberian gulag after being set up by the controlling Soviet authorities in his occupied home nation who forced his wife to testify against him. Although he refused to sign any confession, they packed him off East anyway, and soon he was enduring a living hell in the prison camp, though one fellow inmate, Khabarov (Mark Strong) offered a ray of hope. It was a long shot, but there was a chance they could escape into the surrounding wilderness...
The Way Back was taken from a book that inspired readers across the globe and sold in its hundreds of thousands of copies, but then, as with many such true stories, the question arose about precisely how true the story was, with the original writer found to not have walked countless miles out of harm's way at all, and was actually set free from his sentence back in the forties. Not that this prevented it from being a rattling good yarn, and you could see what attracted filmmakers to it, the director in this case being Peter Weir who had built up a strong following thanks to his singular way with a story, and most appropriate for this, how Mother Nature behaved.
Trouble was, in this the last thing the characters should have been doing would be to stop and admire the scenery, but that was what Weir's wonderful photography and selection of shots practically invited them to do. So captivating were the visuals that the simple storyline was lacking in any shade, and the anti-Soviet sentiment was trowelled on as much as the appreciation of the landscapes, without apparent irony that the escapees were trading one kind of tyranny for another, more natural one. This also meant that any personality the actors attempted to bring to this was drowned.
So in spite of a cast that included some impressive talents, really they might as well have pressed the button marked "Stoic" in their arsenal of emotions and gone with that throughout the whole of the running time, and indeed it appeared that many of them did just that. Ed Harris played the sole American prisoner who speaks English, and leads everyone else to do the same after an opening half hour of many subtitled conversations though why they should defer to his lingo is only explicable when you know that this was made with American money from American companies. At the beginning of the film a caption comes up to tell us that three of the men survived, which gives the game away but what you don't know is which ones out of the eight or so do.
One you can count on who does not is the sole female member of the excursion, another fugitive who is a teenage girl, Irena (Saoirse Ronan), someone they find on their travels and adopt as a kind of mascot. Even she makes only as much of an impression as is necessary, as there is no humour here, and the only reason to cheer up is when they stumble across a carcass in the snowbound forest or water in the desert; even when they cross the border into China their joy is shortlived when they notice Communist insignia there. Their destination is India, so not only is there a desert in the way but a mountain range, and the odds are stacked up against them. But as an experience you grow less interested in the struggling characters and more in the territories they are travelling through, because Weir really did take them to far flung areas; another drawback is that it's a more technical achievement than a tribute to prevailing humanity, basically because that bit is made up. Music by Burkhard von Dallwitz.