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“Keep walking,” the mantra adopted by the band of gulag escapees followed in The Way Back, director Peter Weir‘s first film since 2003, would be a fine mission statement if it weren’t already put to far better use as the slogan of a certain golden-hued whisky. But to escape a Soviet prison, this unlikely band needs to walk and walk and walk some more. Followed by more walking.
The journey recounted by The Way Back—which may or may not be (but probably isn’t) true—begins commonly enough for a Soviet-era adventure when a young Polish officer named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is arrested soon after the Russian invasion of Poland, accused of espionage, and shipped to an outhouse of a prison in the far reaches of Siberia. There, he makes the acquaintances of various categories of inmates, notably a gangster (Colin Farrell), an actor (Mark Strong), an artist (Alexandru Potocean), an accountant-cum-funnyman (Dragos Bucur), a priest (Gustaf Skarsgård), a half-blind teenager (Sebastian Urzendowsky), and an American (Ed Harris). Is there any political prisoner cliché missing?
With the guards warning that the vastness of Siberia is the real prison, this group—save the actor—makes a ridiculously easy escape. Sure, the blizzard is fierce, but once they wiggle through the barbed wire the authorities give little chase as the long trek—theirs sights are set for India—begins. Which means that for the next 4,000 miles we can get to know these chaps.
What do we know about these escapees that Janusz—the brave and falsely convicted Pole—is leading into the wilderness? No one ever loved Farrell’s gangster and the Communists didn’t like him earning on the streets, so they hauled his ass off to the gulag. The American, a taciturn engineer known only as Smith, was locked up on charges of capitalist rabblerousing. And the Red Army shot his son to boot. The priest landed in Siberia after the Bolsheviks torched his church. Where’s Dolph Lundgren when we need him? However unlikely, The Way Back is dripping with so much Thatcherite anticommunist sentiment it would not have been thematically inappropriate for the lumbering Swede to emerge from a bush, AK-47s in hand, ready to mow down the Ruskies.
But it’s not that kind of movie. Quickly enough The Way Back becomes less of a film and more a series of postcards. Lake Baikal, the Great Steppe, Outer Mongolia. Gorgeously shot, all are traversed without the faintest whiff of trouble aside from the occasional death by starvation. Weir misses more than a few opportunities for suspense. To cross from Russia into Mongolia, the group needs to make its way across a span of heavily guarded railroad track. One moment they’re planning their moves, the next its wide-open Mongolia. Did sneaking by that column of tanks and warren of mounted cannons pose any trepidation? We’ll never know.
The only real twist in this story is the sudden introduction of Irena, a young Polish girl lost in the Siberian forest played by the always-captivating Saoirse Ronan. But his lost gypsy who spins inconsistent yarns about how she wound up in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union is, despite Ronan’s best efforts, not as enigmatic or even important as the film would like us to believe. And though she’s the only female the wandering ex-cons encounter, there is not one hint of romance or even inappropriate staring. Any libidinousness was left in the prison or iced over by those first few nights on the open tundra. The only emerging relationship Ronan has is a paternalistic bond with Harris, providing at least a few scenes between the two best actors in the film.
Yet the whole story, insistent intertitles at the film’s opening notwithstanding, is lifted from a bunch of hooey. The “memoir” on which Weir and co-writer Keith Clark based their screenplay, The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, was disproven in 2009 by the claims of another Polish veteran who says he actually made the journey. But even that is in dispute. Rawicz did serve time in the gulag, but was released in 1942; the other supposed traveler, Witold Glinski, lacks in veracity. There is evidence that someone might have accomplished this feat and made it across the Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas into India, but it wasn’t either of these two.
Based on real events or not, a 4,000 mile hike across Asia should not be this uninteresting. The escapees never run into Red Army squads or language barriers or any real threat besides exhaustion. Any tinges of suspense or intrigue were left at that gulag. Arresting landscapes and an infuriatingly preposterous dénouement aside, this is just a long walk to nowhere.