The Way Back

A gruelling tale of survival in the Siberian wastelands leaves Ralph McLean pining for some Christmas frivolity

Australian director Peter Weir doesn’t make a lot of films. With a strike rate of around two a decade, at best, and his last effort arriving on cinema screens seven years ago (the Russell Crowe-led Master and Commander), you could say he’s a tad selective about the projects he puts his name to. When he does decide to haul himself into a director’s chair, however, the results are usually worth noting.

With previous credits including Gallipoli and The Truman Show, it’s easy to see what he looks for in a job: a tale of ordinary people placed in challenging surroundings. The Way Back is certainly in that tradition, but this time the odds are outlandishly high, the surroundings almost impossibly challenging and the fate in question just about unbearably gruesome.

The result is a film that’s less an entertainment experience and more a morale-sapping endurance test that leaves you wrung out both emotionally and physically. By the time the 134 minutes have been clawed away and the film has crawled pitifully to its decidedly un-Hollywood conclusion, you will be utterly spent and pining for something frivolous and frothy to remind you that not all cinema stories have to be quite as unrelentingly glum as this. Trust me, The Expendables this is not.

Loosely adapted from Slavomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk : The True Story Of A Trek To Freedom, The Way Back tells of how Rawicz and his companions escaped the living hell of a Siberian gulag in 1940 and crossed an entire continent, armed only with a single knife and one measly bag of food, to emerge a year later in India.

Much has been made of the authenticity of the source material (with some arguing that Rawicz did not make the trek himself), but Weir takes the story firmly by the neck, makes a few changes and even adds an entirely new character to help bring the tale to the big screen.

The story begins in occupied Poland, where a military officer by the name of Janusz (Englishman Jim Strugess playing the central role of Rawicz) is interrogated and subsequently shipped off to Siberia. As an opening scene it’s shockingly effective - the camera lingers on the character’s face as fear turns to full-blown horror.

From there the grimness begins. The gulag scenes are so horrifically realised in all their sub-human glory they are torturous to watch and the vast, sprawling emptiness of Siberia is captured to great effect. Once Janusz and a handful of like-minded inmates – including a taciturn American (Ed Harris), a semi-crazed Russian thug (Colin Farrell), an artist (Alexandru Potocean) and a priest (Gustaf Skarsgard) – make their way to freedom in a blizzard, it becomes clear that their perilous journey across the continent is bound to end in death for most of them.

Weir films the changing locations with predictable panache and throws up any number of difficult moral quandaries as the unlikely gang of escapees consider their diminishing options. They meet a helpless teenager (Saoirse Ronan) and debate if they can afford the effort to help her. People start dying. Through it all the cast cope manfully. Even Farrell’s loose cannon character, with his dodgy cold war Russian accent and a tattoo of Stalin on his chest, convinces as the journey from hell drags on.

Visually enthralling and peopled with fine performances as it is, it’s hard not to feel slightly repulsed by The Way Back. As the life threatening challenges grow with every passing minute it’s easy to feel that you’re being manipulated in one long - very long - study in degradation.

Weir’s last big budget epic, the admirable Master And Commander, suffered at the box office due to its arrival at the same time as The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King in 2003, and perhaps this film’s pre-Christmas release suggests a similar misjudgement.

Alternatively it may appeal to those seeking to offset seasonal tooth rot with something a little stronger, something that isn’t afraid to show just how far the human spirit can be pushed when pursuing freedom. Either way this is a film not to be approached without careful consideration. First, you should ask yourself: just how much of the dark stuff can you stomach at this time of year?