It’s a little-known fact that during the Depression thousands of Americans immigrated to Russia in hopes of finding work. At the onset of World War II, many of them had their passports confiscated and eventually ended up in Siberian gulags. Director Peter Weir’s new film, “The Way Back,” tells the story of a diverse group of men who bravely escaped a camp and walked an incredible 4,000 miles to freedom in India
The year is 1940. The locale is a Russian prison located in a frozen wasteland. Against all odds, a small band of scraggly, starving inmates escape and begin an unimaginable journey with little food, clothing or water. Their common bond: All of them would rather die as free men than Stalin’s prisoners.
Constantly on the brink of death, the trekkers rely upon one another for strength, courage and survival. When they come upon a young girl (Saoirse Ronan, who shined in “Atonement”) who joins their tattered ranks, each man begins letting his guard down by opening up to her, revealing their sad pasts. These hateful, hardened men begin to evolve into kind, compassionate comrades.
Colin Farrell (“Crazy Heart”) and Ed Harris (“Pollock”) give riveting performances as a pro-Stalin devotee (Farrell) and an ex-pat American (Harris). Both men have been wrongfully imprisoned and yet, ironically, they’re diametrically opposed, politically.
This is Weir’s first film in seven years, his last having been the magnificent, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” Known for his acute ability to explore expertly the complexities of the human condition, Weir is on top of his game in “The Way Back.” The depths of horror exemplified in the gulags provide a sharp contrast to the gentle bonding among the escapees. It’s as though man’s inhumanity to man knows no boundaries until it’s compared to man’s intense love for his fellow man, which prevails in this glorious film.
The stunning cinematography provided by longtime collaborator Russell Boyd rivals the amazing experience that the film depicts. Endless mountains of sand, blindingly beautiful snowstorms and jet-black evening skies slathered with millions of sparkling stars are a feast for the eyes.
“The Way Back” is presented as having been “inspired by real events.” It now seems that tag is somewhat questionable and shrouded in doubt. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable story and an excellent film, which most certainly deserves an audience.