“Nature is your jailer and she has no mercy”
I have never seen classic, 70s Peter Weir such as Picnic at Hanging Rock. I haven’t even seen 80s Weir for that matter. The few I have had the opportunity to catch, however—The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, Master and Commander—all enthralled, making me realize this director wasn’t one to take lightly. So, amidst all the praise going around this year for the young upstarts and the youngish stalwarts, it’s easy to forget the 66-year old is not only still working, but also churning out quality fare deserving to be seen. His new work is The Way Back; a true story of seven men who escaped a Siberian gulag, making their way to safety from Communist occupied everywhere. Many were falsely imprisoned—an actor, a professor, a metro engineer—and all knew their sentences were most likely going to end in death. The choice became simple for them all; if they were going to die, they will die free.
The over two-hour film spans 4000-plus miles of walking through snow, forests, deserts, and mountains. Food is hard to come by and water is scarcer. Because of all this, it’s no secret that the seven men don’t all make it to India and salvation, a dedication at the start speaks of three who made their way out of the Himalayas. A film like this needs that sense of mortality in order to succeed. It allows us to bond with the characters, to pull for some—and maybe less for others so our favorites make it—and to invest in the harrowing journey that takes more mental toughness than physical prowess, although a healthy body definitely helps the cause. The ragtag bunch is a mixture of unique personalities to keep interest too, covering the likes of a Russian criminal, a Latvian priest, displaced Poles, an American immigrant, and even a young girl who meets them along the way, her own background a mystery. Survival puts differences aside since no one stays alive through a nightmare like war without having done something worth regretting.
Much of the film was shot in Morocco and Bulgaria, but the expanses fit perfectly for the Siberian wasteland and deserts of Mongolia and China. The sense of dread cultivated in the prison would make anyone risk escape. If the guards didn’t kill you, the criminal hierarchy inside their lodging would by blade or hypothermia once your coat and sweater is stolen for gambling collateral. There are those motivated by freedom, others to avoid paying debts, and yet still more living to either make up for wrongs resulting in the death of loved ones or to get back home and proclaim forgiveness for the family who signed their death warrant through torture-induced lies. Some, like Mark Strong’s Khabarov, are more inclined to talk about making a run for the South than actually having the guts to do so, the stories and belief sustaining him to fight another day, leaching off newcomers’ hope to reignite the fire long ago burned out. With a lack of food, mining slave labor, lice, and night blindness cause by malnourishment, sometimes death appears to be the best option.
It is Janusz (Jim Sturgess), whose love for his wife—one of the tortured liars—lets him build the courage to ready his friends and a couple add-ons for a try at escape. Kindhearted to a fault, the Pole creates an unlikely friendship with Mr. Smith, Ed Harris’s loner American surviving through selfishness and smarts. Smith knows he can’t do it alone and has been incarcerated for too long to miss the chance at going with someone as serious about leaving as Janusz. The younger man agrees to go as long as he can bring his friends too—Zoran (Dragos Bucur), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård), and Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky)—the wildcard of Colin Farrell’s Valka joining in part from his ownership of a knife needed for survival and also by its blade’s threat of literally killing the plan before it starts. Trust is huge as any one of them could turn the others in for reward and the hope of leniency. Also, without a means for food, cannibalism could easily end up a necessity.
Like any story of survival against all odds, this group finds their share of good luck to wrap up the bad with a gleam of hope. They fight the elements with birch bark masks to fight the piercing snow on the way to Mongolia, only finding it occupied by Stalinist sympathizers. They meet men on horses who not only let them pass, but even nod the way to Tibet and leave water, only foreshadowing the horrors to come in a never-ending desert of sun and sand. Somehow, though, they get through it with humor, compassion, and humanity. Farrell stands out on this point by molding a vicious killer with Valka, but also a man with a code and a willingness to side with whomever’s in charge and work for the group. Saoirse Ronan, the vagabond Irena who meets the clan mid-journey, joins him as characters that instill change through their actions. He proves looks can be deceiving and she becomes the one person with a desire to learn about the people alongside her. Irena’s conversations open the rest up to their past and awaiting future, helping them forget the present.
Everyone has their shining moment, their scene to prove they’ve sacrificed. Bucur deflects tragedy with humor, imaginatively adding double salt to Tomasz’s verbal chicken recipe; Potocean has his drawings, a powerful outlet he refuses anyone to take lightly; Skarsgård has his church, its destruction, and his deeds resulting from the rubble; and Sturgess has his faith and love to get him through, stories of an endgame he refuses to give up on. But it is Harris who resonates more than the rest. His weathered, cracked skin hardening with every passing second as his heart melts to a point he never thought could happen since watching his son get taken away. By far the oldest, quitting is always an easy out, allowing the rest to carry on quicker without him holding them back. He chose Janusz to be his companion due to kindness, knowing he wouldn’t leave an old man behind. What he got instead was an example of strength, unmatched willpower, and the leadership to stand the test of hard miles before India and even more years until Poland was free to welcome him back. Somehow, these men found a way.
 The group watch as Irina attempts to cross the frozen lake.
 Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and Valka (Colin Farrell) come to blows.
 Mark strong stars as Khabarov in Newmarket Films’ The Way Back (2011)