For the telling of an epic prison-camp escape and trek to freedom â€“ all the way from Siberia to India â€“ four thousand, five hundred miles across wolf-haunted forests, the high Gobi Desert and finally, over the Himalayas into Tibet â€“ The Way Back is a surprisingly understated and subdued narrative. But then itâ€™s directed by Peter Weir who must be the polar opposite of Michael Bay. Weir is the master of subtlety, of drawing back and observing from a slight remove â€“ the characters, their situation, and most importantly, the surroundings they are moving through. The viewer is only drawn in over time, and never clubbed over the head by a narrative that clutches you by the throat and demands that you must pay attention to this, or that. Weir just puts it there, and quietly expects you to observe. No punches are pulled, regarding the cruelty of the Soviet gulags under Stalin, by the way â€“ which comes as somewhat of refreshing change in movie-making. Stories of the cruelties of Nazi labor or extermination camps are to be had in plenty, but comparatively few moviemakers feel obliged to dwell upon Soviet crimes against humanity.
The story is a simple one: seven prisoners escape from a brutal labor camp in Soviet Siberia during the early days of World War II. Only one, the Polish political prisoner Januz (Jim Sturgess) has much of his back-story told; he has been accused by the Soviets of being a spy, and his wife tortured into going along with the accusation. Once in the Gulag, he finds himself in a sort of League of Nations made up of all those who had the misfortune to find themselves condemned as enemies of the Soviets â€“ an artist, a priest, a career criminal â€“ Valka (Colin Farrell) . . . and one stray and cynical American, Mr. Smith (Ed Harris). One more thing do the escapers have in common â€“ they want out, even if it means dying outside the wire. The viewer has the sense that they would prefer to die as free men in a hopeless endeavor, rather than tamely accept the inevitable death by starvation, work accident or at the hands of their jailers.
And so they make their break, carrying little food, or gear, dressed in rags and buoyed by of stubborn hope. The escapers do not particularly like, or trust each other, especially at first; all that we know of them is what they tell each other, huddled around a smoldering campfire, or have observed in the camp. Their numbers are soon thinned, although they are augmented for a while by another escaped prisoner, a Polish girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan), as they move doggedly south. The country that they move through is bleak and beautiful â€“ from mountainous pine forest, through steppes and plains of grass, through desert and into the mountains again and at all times as much of a character as any of the actors. The Way Back is a testament to the spirit of those who would survive â€“ and survive with their decency and humanity intact.
The Way Back is available from Amazon.com and other retail outlets.
Sgt. Mom is a free-lance writer and member of the Independent Authors Guild who lives in San Antonio and blogs at The Daily Brief. Her Adelsverein Trilogy, and her latest â€“ Daughter of Texas â€“ is also available through Amazon.com. More about her books is at her website www.celiahayes.com.