The smart money says that audiences will never drag their asses to a multiplex to see a fact-based movie about prisoners of war who escape a Siberian gulag in 1940 and drag their asses through China, the Gobi desert and Tibet, and over the Himalayas to India and what may be just a dream of freedom. Agreed, The Way Back is a challenge. But it is not an endurance test. Why? Peter Weir is the director, and this extraordinary adventure is his first film since the Oscar-nominated Master and Commander eight years ago. Since this world-class Australian filmmaker works rarely (13 movies in 36 years) and his output includes Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Year of Living Dangerously, Fearless and The Truman Show, only cinema illiterates would hesitate to work their way back to Weir.
The director, 66, brings his passion for precision to every frame of the film, refusing to hype or Hollywoodize the detailed richness of the story. Freely adapting Slavomir Rawicz's 1956 book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke answered long-standing questions about the authenticity of Rawicz's story — did this really happen to him, or was he reporting tales he had heard from others? — by doing their own research into the lives of these POWs.
Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, 21) excels as Janusz, a young Polish prisoner desperate to return home to the wife who betrayed him. The torturous life in the dark, frigid labor camp is so painstakingly rendered that you long for the breakout, even in a blizzard. Janusz, the unofficial leader, has survivalist skills that aid the other escapees, including Mr. Smith (a superb Ed Harris), a secretive American engineer. Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian thug with a gold tooth and a hair-trigger temper, uses a different method to get in on the daring getaway: He holds a knife to Janusz's throat until he agrees to take him along. Farrell's feral performance energizes the film. As the men trek 4,000 miles across harsh terrain, avoiding occupied areas, they find themselves followed by Irena (the excellent Saoirse Ronan), a 14-year-old Polish refugee who joins the group and incites the men to reveal personal details.
Is that soap opera knocking? Not in a Weir film. He has crafted a riveting tale that clings bravely to the integrity of its storytelling, even at the risk of emotional remoteness. It's the journey that counts, and Weir makes you feel it in your bones. His refusal to pander to the heartstrings may cost the movie at the box office. But it shouldn't deter you from watching a master at work. Resonantly shot by Russell Boyd, this artful tale of survival against the elements — radiating terror and beauty — continues Weir's fascination with characters trapped by worlds they didn't make.