Imagine this: It's Poland in 1940. Under duress of unspecified torture, a young guy's wife rats him out to cruel Soviet authorities, who call him a spy and send him to the gulag. For a while, the guy languishes there. Then, gathering his inner reserves of fortitude and a few pals, he breaks out.
Not that there's really anywhere to go—the guy was advised upon his arrival that "nature is your jailer and she is without mercy." Given the blizzards and the hilly, frozen, foodless void stretching for miles in all directions, that advice seems accurate. But then, in the gulag, a man can get stabbed to death just for having a sweater. So even with his pals dropping like flies from exposure to an increasingly life-denying wilderness, the guy hikes across Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, across the Himalayas, and across the whole historical swath of the Cold War, all to get home and tell his wife he forgives her. Are we talking husband of the year or what?
The guy is played, not unappealingly, by Jim Sturgess. His pals include Colin Farrell as a tattooed Russian prison thug and Ed Harris as a flinty American called Smith who, when asked for his first name, replies, "Mister." Smith likes to point out that kindness can be lethal. That advice seems accurate, too, at least in this situation. It's also worth bearing in mind as various obstacles come up during the men's journey—obstacles like the teenage Polish runaway, played by Saoirse Ronan, who tries to tag along with them.
Seven escapees, plus one straggler, star in a movie whose opening credits dedicate it to the three individuals who made it through the aforementioned trek. We cannot help but wait to find out who doesn't make it, and why. It's sort of like 127 Hours, except with a greater variety of locations and actors. Or like The Incredible Journey, except with people traveling 4,000 miles from Russia to India instead of animals traveling 300 miles within Canada. The issue of the journey's credibility remains. An ongoing BBC investigation suggests first that the film's source material, Slavomir Rawicz's 1956 memoir The Long Walk, was fabricated and then that the events it describes actually did happen, just not to him.
But director Peter Weir, last seen at the multiplex seven years ago with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, doesn't trouble himself over this tale's veracity. (Hence the change of title to The Way Back, as well as the change of character names.) Instead, Weir, who co-scripted with Keith R Clarke, spends his energy establishing panoramic grandeur. Viewers expecting a pulse-pounding jailbreak thriller are instead offered a vivid meditation on endurance. And if the individual characters seem to come into focus only barely and briefly during this long haul, maybe it's fair to consider that a matter of grand-scheme scale—the cosmic enormity of their soul-shearing ordeal.
As guided by Weir's practiced eye, Russell Boyd's cinematography conveys what seems like the right ratio of reverence and foreboding: It's a beautiful world, but you'd hate to have to schlep across it. Dramatically, The Way Back isn't much more than a linear array of hardships. But what an array it is.