Peter Weir is a formidable filmmaker, with a resume full of movies that challenge and engage the viewer in service of some higher calling than just making a piece of entertainment.
But with The Way Back, Weir jumps the tracks, making a movie with amazing scope but little drama. The level of tension in the film is like a toothache -- constant, gnawing but not particularly enjoyable.
Based on a true story, The Way Back begins with Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish prisoner of the Soviet Union, circa World War II, being questioned and accused of political crimes. His brutal interrogators have a witness against him: his wife, who reads a laundry list of his crimes, having obviously been tortured before agreeing to do so.
Janusz is sent to a prison work camp in Siberia, which is as dreary and cold as you'd imagine. But he begins to hear talk that, in fact, escape is possible. Of course, once you get clear of the barbed wire fences, you have to survive the harsh Siberian winter. And then it's a thousand miles to anywhere.
But he puts together a little escape group, made up of movie stars (Ed Harris as a mysterious American named Mr. Smith, Colin Farrell as a Russian street thug) and two or three foreign actors -- in a way, Weir is playing a loaded "guess who will survive?" game here.
They start their journey -- first through the frozen mountain forests, then through other terrain that is alternately providential and challenging. They face a recurring series of problems and obstacles: lack of food, lack of water, weather that's too cold, deserts that threaten to kill them with thirst. They also pick up a straggler: a girl (Saoirse Ronan), also looking to escape from the Russians.
Weir goes back and forth between showcasing the human suffering of these escapees and showing just how tiny they are against the uncaring grandeur of nature. Yes, we get it -- they're like ants battling a world that neither cares nor worries whether they survive.
And when we close in to hear their complaints, their agonizing, their fantasizing -- well, Keith Clarke's script is awash in clichés, whether it's the pep talks they give each other or the crusty Mr. Smith suddenly becoming sensitive to the needs of the girl.
It's not that The Way Back is boring -- it just seems to be unending. It's one thing to show what feels like an interminable journey (they spent a year traversing 4,000 miles before reaching an actual destination); it's another to actually make it feel interminable.
Which The Way Back does. Your admiration for Weir's achievement in shooting in forbidding locations is quickly tempered by impatience with the story-telling. A journey of 4,000 miles begins with a single step -- and The Way Back wants us to celebrate every subsequent step after that first one.