By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
This epic tale of survival is unbelievable. Literally. Even though it’s supposed to be true.
A shame, that, because The Way Back has the earmarks of a stirring adventure yarn in the mold of The Great Escape, although it’s much more about the arduous journey after the escape than the escape itself.
But sitting through the movie version of this astounding tale, you can understand why the details and authenticity of the allegedly factual story of grim determination and physical endurance have always been disputed.
The improbability of it all hangs over the proceedings like a thick drape over a folding chair.
Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell star as three of the seven prisoners in a Soviet Union labor camp who escape certain death in one of Stalin’s gulags and embark on a monumentally lengthy and treacherous journey — from Siberia to Mongolia to China to Tibet to India.
Is your disbelief suspended yet?
Sturgess is a railroaded and betrayed Polish army officer, Harris a tight-lipped pro-Communist American engineer, and Farrell a seething, cynical, knife-wielding Russian criminal.
Together, the desperately driven escapees — dwarfed by vast, majestic landscapes — walk thousands of miles (yep, you read that right) over a distance of about 4,000 miles of hostile terrain, across the Himalayas, and all the way to India, battling hunger, thirst, snow, heat, sandstorms, wolves, snakes, and fatigue over mountains, across deserts, and through forests.
Not all seven of them make it, naturally, but that any of them does is a tough truth to make convincing — and the film never quite manages that admittedly ambitious feat.
This is a film you want to like more than you’re able to, because there is plenty of admirable moviemaking craft on display. But in the final analysis, this well-intentioned and respectably made “docudrama” is nonetheless exasperatingly repetitive and ultimately less than persuasive.
And the delineation of its characters would have to be a lot more captivating than they are, conveyed in performances that are much more vivid and memorable than they are, for us to do more than just get through (that is, survive) the daunting, laborious surface narrative.
For four-time Oscar-nominated Australian director Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), who co-wrote the screenplay with Keith Clarke inspired by and based on the book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz, this is the first film in seven years.
Perhaps that explains his several miscalculations: in pacing, which is plodding; in judging just how much trudging spectators can and should endure, and just how inherently interesting this particular mix of characters and their various interactions is; and in whether there is sufficent dramatic tension, something there was much more of in Weir’s masterful, commanding, and much more see-worthy Master and Commander.
But the biggest problem with The Way Back is that it never emerges — on the screen, at least — as anything other than a fictional tall tale, a creative construction rather than an honest reminiscence.
Which is why we’ll escape from 2 stars out of 4 for this peripatetic man-against-nature drama, The Way Back, an exhausting motion picture that’s not exhaustive or convincing enough as an emotion picture.