Based on a source memoir The Long Walk, this latest Peter Weir film, his first after a mighty, if neglected Master and Commander, is most likely a hard sell in an always competitive theatrical setting.
A prolonged, emotional adventure, a survival film that goes out of its way to immerse one into its character's difficult plight is The Way Back, one that understands the need to move on in the face of overwhelming obstacles. Weir's presumed homage to cinema stalwarts like Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean has a fine old-fashion sweep to it and stars Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris and Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones and late to be seen in the suspense adventure Hanna).
Weir, who wrote the screenplay with executive producer Keith R. Clarke, builds what, for some, amounts to an amazing travelogue. The scenario they set up from the antecedent, diary and first-person accounts might challenge some onlookers trying to become acclimated to its (international) subjects' treacherous conditions.
In the middle of a gelid winter in 1939 in Poland during Stalin's "Reign of Terror", Janusz (Sturgess of 21 and Across The Universe) is accused of being a spy. He's remanded to an inhumane, remote Siberian gulag, but is determined to survive and someday return to his home to see his wife who has been unfaithful to him.
This fact-based tale about indomitable will and fortitude has Janusz pitted with a reserved American structural engineer Mr. Smith (Harris), Valka, a hotheaded Russian criminal, part of the "Urki," (Farrell), among four others who would escape the labor camp 1940.
While free, their plight for safety is extremely precarious on their first 300 miles to Lake Bakal. It's just the start of what amounts to some 4000 miles to India with a young Polish lass (Ronan) picked up early on.
A remarkable, but tedious sojourn is fueled by primal instincts as much hardship is endured. As much as the film's rating allows, this prestige entry puts the physical agony front and center which may come across too sadistically for some. Help is scarce, but offered along the way as the dwindling group crosses the icy Siberian countryside to the interminable Gobi Desert and finally to the Himalayas.
Weir is able to set up some interesting exchanges during a struggle which ultimately relies on solidarity, trust and compassion. Joy and anguish is part of what is a conventional cinematic technique with less of a character-detailed approach. Still, there are moments for the cast to shine, notably Sturgess and an unstable Farrell who are most able to internalize the personal and external conflicts of Janusz and Valka.
The production features solid, lush lensing from Russell Boyd from such diverse locales as Australia, Bulgaria, India, and Morocco. While it may test the limits of some viewers, this Way may remind older ones of the director's earlier efforts like Gallipoli, representative of the coercions human nature often feels. Maybe those who know how the story may actually have transpired, it may come across as a bit fictionalized and generic. Yet it can be not as wildly outrageous and frustrating as an intense, moral observation of endurance.