Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language, 133 minutes
Touching but overlong "The Way Back"
"The Way Back" is one of those hidden gems of a film based on a reportedly true but little-known story set in Russia during World War II. It tells the story of a Russian gulag who escape from prison and trek over 4000 miles from Russia to India over some treacherous, deadly terrain. Directed by veteran filmmaker Peter Weir ("Dead Poets Society," "Witness"), the epic film is an overlong but moving, uplifting journey to freedom.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is a young Polish POW sent to 20 years in a Russian prison in Siberia for supposedly being a spy by the Russian government. There he meets an elderly American who calls himself Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a Russian lowlife named Valka (Colin Ferrell). They along with a few others in their Gulag escape into the Siberian forest with plans to trek Mongolia to freedom. Along the way, they pick up a Polish orphan named Irena (Saiorse Ronan), on the run from the Russian government and nowhere to go. They're plans unexpectedly change and they decide to go to India instead, though the treacherous terrain and longer journey will undoubtedly claim a few, if not all, of the Gulag along the way.
"The Way Back" is a fascinating, touching portrait of an excessively long, tough road to freedom. Based on the book "The Long Walk" by Polish POW Slawomir Rawicz, it's based on his supposed true story though in fact much of it is fiction (even director Weir now says this). Epic in scope, Weir directs and co-writes the screenplay with a sweeping focus, though the story holds up well on its own, and the small, emotional moments in the extensive film are the more beautiful ones. Handsomely told, it's overlong and requires you to stay with it until the end, but once you get there it's a beautiful place.
Sturgess and Harris ground the film well in solid performances, as does young Oscar-nominee Saiorse Ronan ("Atonement") as the lone female for much of the film. Ferrell is decent in what is really a non-essential role, he's there to add a little toughness to the film, but Harris already does that nicely. Ferrell's abrupt exit from the film in the second act is a bit baffling considering how far his character has come, and the film actually works better without him.
Shot on location in several locations, including Morocco, Bulgaria, India, and Pakistan, there are some lovely set pieces and entertaining moments, but "The Way Back" does go on too long, and Weir could've trimmed some of the second act down, but overall, it comes recommended whether it's true or not. Too bad "The Way Back" hasn't received a wide release because it's a satisfying journey and worth it in the end.