Fact is often stranger than fiction and some stories are so incredible that they have to be true. And even if there is conjecture about whether or not author Slavomir Ramowicz himself made the amazing trek from Siberia to India, across Mongolia's Gobi Desert and over the Himalayas, as claimed in his book, others did. Peter Weir's The Way Back is a testament to them - and the human desire for freedom - regardless of the source material.
Polish man, Janusz (Jim Sturgess), is found guilty of treason against the Soviet Party, on evidence tortured out of his wife, and is sentenced to hard labour in a Siberian gulag. But it's not long before his thoughts turn to escape; cold, hunger and lice will do that to you. Encouraged firstly by fellow prisoner, Khabarov (Mark Strong), who proves to be all talk, Janusz puts talk into action with a handful of inmates, including a low-level Russian mobster, Valka (Colin Farrel), and Mr Smith (Ed Harris), an American and Communist sympathiser interred for being a foreigner.
These three men, and four others, escape through the forest and into the mountains during a snowstorm, which will conceal their tracks from pursuing guards if it doesn't kill them first. Following that, it's a 4000-mile walk through unforgiving landscapes, beautifully shot by cinematographer Russell Boyd.
Weir has always been in awe of nature (Picnic At Hanging Rock, Mosquito Coast, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), and its on display here in all its majesty and terror; Bulgaria, Morocco and Pakistan standing in for Siberia, Mongolia and India, and somehow all captured on a budget of just $30 million. That said, at times that grandeur can diminish the human characters in the film; Weir and screenwriter, Keith R. Clarke, choosing not to weigh down their trekkers in the way of backstory or conflict.
That decision may reduce one's emotional involvement somewhat but I was still moved when members of this band of travellers fell by the wayside; an opening title credit informs us that 'three men' walked out of the mountains into India. Less successful is that eventual arrival in India, which should be triumphant but feels rather muted (the 20th Century Communism 101 postscript at film's end doesn't help either).
But the four stars (including young Saoirse Ronan as Irena, a Polish girl also fleeing Russia who joins the men when still headed for the Mongolian border) make an impression. Sturgess's Janusz is a good anchor for the drama, while Harris is at his stoic best. And Farrell, equally comic and menacing, gives one of his better performances, even if his thick Russian accent renders him near indecipherable.
The Way Back is Peter Weir's first film since 2003's Master and Commander, and there was a very real possibility of it going direct to DVD. When an artist such as Weir, arguably Australia's greatest ever director, cant find a distributor for his work, there is something terribly wrong with the film distribution paradigm.
The Way Back may not be a masterpiece, or even Weir at the top of his game, but sub par Weir is better than many a director's best. That isn't to say that great directors should receive a rubber stamp for each new work. Like anyone, they're only as good as their last film. But even if that hadn't been the Oscar-nominated Master and Commander, I'd be willing to give Peter Weir the benefit of the doubt.
Weir claims to already be working on his next project; let's hope we don't have to wait another seven years to see it, and that we can see it in a cinema.