Director Peter Weir, maker of such films as The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, and The Truman Show, is one of film's master landscape artists. With the possible exception of Terence Malick, no one surpasses him in conveying the lure and awe of place and its transforming effects on people.
In The Way Back, a breathtaking epic, Weir chronicles the two-year, 4,000-mile trek of prisoners who escape from a gulag in Siberia. They walk south to Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, and the survivors then make it up into the Himalayas to find sanctuary in Tibet and India. Impossible, but true?
It is based on a purported memoir by Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish army officer sentenced to prison in Siberia by the Soviets in 1939.
While it is true that Rawicz was imprisoned in Siberia on trumped-up charges in 1939, there is no evidence that he made the trek himself. He may have heard the story from another survivor of the gulags.
Whether it is truth, fiction or, most likely, a little of each, the story Weir tells is a powerful parable of man's charge for freedom and his humbling by nature.
Weir brackets the film with the individual story of Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Pole sent to a Siberian gulag in 1939. Mystified by the politics of the prison camp and terrified by the pestilence, Janusz is too intimidated to make friends but knows that to survive he must forge alliances.
Volka (Colin Farrell) is a logical ally, a convict with a knife, which could be helpful, and a hair-trigger temper, which could be hurtful. Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), an American of few words, is too enigmatic to show Janusz the ropes. The best bet is a film actor (Mark Strong), whose crime was to make an aristocratic character he played seem too sympathetic.
As they freeze through a series of frostbite blizzards, the actor inflames Janusz with dreams of escape. This, despite their location between impassable forested mountains. "Nature is your jailer," warns a prison guard as the men toil in the snow. "And she is without mercy."
Over the course of his 133-minute epic of courage and survival through numbing cold and blistering heat, Weir proceeds to unpack and disprove the guard's thesis.
Nature is unpredictable and harsh, the filmmakers agree. But she is generous in her bounty, spectacular in her beauty, and provides that human essential, freedom.
Weir, long attracted to stories of those in unfamiliar psychological and physical places, finds poetry in the vein on a leaf, music in the sound of the pebbles underfoot, and a series of dazzling vistas.
The filmmaker is fortunate in his clear-eyed collaborator, cinematographer Russell Boyd, who worked with him on Gallipoli, Dangerously, and the magical Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Although both Harris and Farrell are quite fine, as is Saoirse Ronan as a young girl the escapees meet near a fairy-tale lake, the characters on this trek are a lot less interesting than the landscapes. Weir does not mine them for their scenic properties, but for their emotional elements. The result is a one-of-a-kind experience.