The Way Back is based on the true story of a group of prisoners, whom escape a Russian Gulag in Siberia in the winter of 1940. After their daring escape, the group must cross the dangerous terrain to reach Mongolia, where they will hopefully find freedom from the Communist regime that hunts them. Filling out the cast are Ed Harris (Pollock, A History Of Violence), Colin Farrell (Miami Vice, Phone Booth) and Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones). Director Peter Weir's greatest asset here is his cast. A film like The Way Back will live or die by it's cast and thankfully, all major players bring their A-game to the table. The biggest surprise, performance wise, is Colin Farrell in his portrayal of Valka, a head strong, professional criminal. In the past, Farrell has been accused of butchering foreign accents, but his Russian works perfectly here. Ed Harris also provides a good performance as the mysterious American prisoner amongst the group. Although laughably named Mr. Smith, his character proves to be more than a one dimension cardboard cut out of the Real American Hero.
Peter Weir, whom previously directed Master & Commander and Witness, directs with masterful form, doing his up most with what's available. And with that The Way Back could have been a beautiful epic, but unfortunately it's not without it's problems. Firstly, the film's pace is deathly slow. After the initial escape, the fugitives encounter hazardous weather, an obstacle they must overcome to get to the border. Eventually, the characters get to the border, where they encounter...hazardous weather. After passing through this, they reach the treacherous, boiling desert. Where they encounter, you guessed it, hazardous weather. For a film that reaches slightly over the 125 minutes mark, The Way Back is for the most part devoid of real threat or a sense of danger. And yes, while Weir focuses his tale more to the dangers of starvation and dehydration, the audience still needs something to show them that this 4,000 mile journey is an epic quest, not just a really, really long walk. This is not to say the film is boring (the landscapes will keep you in awe), it just comes to feel like you too, like the characters in the film, just want to reach the final destination.
Despite it's small flaws and plodding pace, The Way Back is a good, hearty film. I wouldn't go so far as to call the film an inspiring tale, but if it's all to be believed as true, then it's a fascinating view on surviving against all odds.
The Way Back is in Irish cinemas now.