It’s his first film since Master and Commander eight years ago. Peter Weir, whose career ranges from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1977) made in his native Australia to American classics like The Truman Show, has attempted one of his more challenging undertakings with this epic tale of perseverance. Although the canvas is enormous and the characters captivating, The Way Back does suffer from a sluggish tempo and self-indulgence in its running time of nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Inspired by the bestselling memoir by one of the survivors, the film follows seven prisoners who escape from a Siberian gulag shortly after the outbreak of World War II.
Constantly in danger of being caught and executed, the septet embarks on an extraordinary 4,000-mile walk to freedom. They traverse through Russia, Mongolia, China and Tibet before arriving over the Himalayas into India.
Several of the escapees perish en route either from the merciless Siberian cold or the scorching sun of the Gobi desert. Weir holds no punches in conveying the debilitating realities of their predicament. Lucklessly, however, the outcome is devoid of dramatic tension, even coming across at times, like an extreme travelogue. Not surprisingly, National Geographic Entertainment is one of the producers.
The mandatory female quotient is provided by a refugee (Saorise Ronan, lissom as ever) who joins the weary plodders midway through their cross- continental trek. Colin Farrell is miscast in the role of a ruthless Russian criminal.
Incidentally, the veracity of the source memoir has been questioned by subsequent researchers. But whether it’s based on fact or fabrication, The Way Back is a definite step backward for Peter Weir.