Movie Review

The Way Back

Real or not, it’s truly inspiring: While story behind trek from Siberia to India is questionable, film’s quality is irrefutable

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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Is Peter Weir capable of making a bad movie? Maybe not, but in a career that has seen “Picnic at Hanging Rock,’’ “Witness,’’ “The Truman Show,’’ and “Master and Commander,’’ “The Way Back’’ is one of the few that’s good rather than great. It’s certainly big: A sort-of-true story about an epic World War II-era trek from Siberia to India, the movie’s grueling, inspiring, astonishing to look at. You come out feeling you’ve traveled half the planet. As ordeal movies go, though, this one’s oddly easy to shake off. The recent “127 Hours’’ took the audience on a richer emotional journey in one place than “The Way Back’’ does in 4,000 miles.

But it’s earnest and well-acted and sturdily filmed: We’re in good hands and we know it. As Janusz, the ardent young Polish officer consumed with the idea of escaping from a Soviet gulag and walking to freedom, Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe’’) is an appealing team leader with deep survival skills. When, in the middle of a raging Russian blizzard, he outfits the other escapees with birch bark masks, we’re seeing the will to live joined to knowledge and creativity.

Janusz’s skills can only go so far, for the journey and for the movie. After the six men flee their prison not far from the Arctic Circle, they’re essentially at the mercy of the elements, the ecosystems, and each other. Weir’s script, cowritten with Keith R. Clarke, brings half the band into sharp focus: In addition to Janusz, there’s a vicious Russian gangster named Valka (Colin Farrell) with survival skills of his own, and a mysterious, hard-bitten American who calls himself Smith (Ed Harris) and whose story leaks out in pieces throughout the film.

The other three travelers are more sketchily drawn, each given a single character trait: an artist (Alexandru Potocean), a joker (Dragos Bucur), a mystic (Gustaf Skarsgård). Until they sort themselves out midway through the film, you might want to call them Manny, Moe, and Jack. Around Lake Baikal, the troupe is joined by Irena (Saoirse Ronan), another Polish escapee from the vast Soviet penal system, and the seven voyage south together.

The drama in “The Way Back’’ is almost purely elemental, pitting humans against a series of harsh environments to see who wins. Dense subarctic forests are followed by endless plains, parching deserts, daunting mountains, each its own stunning kind of hell. Weir keeps the momentum going on his characters’ sheer drive, occasionally indulging himself with artistic touches — the moving but heavy-handed Christian symbolism of Irena’s scenes, for instance — that feel obtrusive in the primal settings. This story is one of the all-time great treks, and it needs few fripperies to engage a viewer.

But did it happen? It depends on whom you ask, and when. “The Way Back’’ is based closely on the 1956 book “The Long Walk,’’ told by Slavomir Rawicz to a British ghostwriter and long a cult classic to adventurers and armchair travelers. Rawicz claimed the experience was his — up to and including a yeti sighting in the Himalayas (not in the movie, thankfully) — but recent efforts have unearthed evidence that casts doubt on his veracity. Even further evidence suggests someone else may have led the journey from gulag to India: A Pole named Witold Glinski, perhaps, or simply men (and one woman) whose names are lost to history.

In a recent BBC interview, Weir describes being enraptured by the book, discovering the truth of the matter (or, rather, its unknowability), and finally proceeding with what he calls “essentially a fictional film.’’ You can feel that fuzziness and frustration bedeviling the edges of “The Way Back,’’ Weir’s wish (and ours) for the story to be so. We need our epics of human survival — over the land, over the cruelties of other men — almost more than these heroes need to survive.

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THE WAY BACK Directed by: Peter Weir

Written by: Weir and Keith R. Clarke, based on a book by Slavomir Rawicz

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 133 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image, brief strong language)

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