In 1941, a small group of prisoners escape from a Soviet gulag with the intention of making it to freedom across the Mongolian border. Led by a falsely imprisoned Pole named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) and an American soldier known only as Mr. Smith (Ed Harris), the crew braves the treacherous Siberian weather and battles starvation before reaching the lake they plan to follow to salvation. Along the way they add a member to their group, a "gypsy" girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who raises the spirits of the men and proves to be a hardy survivalist. Upon reaching the border, their celebrations are cut short when they realize that Mongolia, too, has come under the influence of Communism. With few choices, Janusz leads his friends further overland in an attempt to make it to India, some 4,000 miles from where they originally started.
With a great cast and a compelling storyline, "The Way Back" should be a lot better than it is. The performances are all admirable if underwhelming and each actor holds his own within what they're given to work with. Harris is a calming influence over the whole film, Sturgess is good as the quiet-yet-strong man with the plan, and Ronan sufficiently provides a little bit of sunshine to the darkness. The cinematography is INCREDIBLE. From the Siberian forests to the Gobi desert, the landscape shots are plentiful and magnificent, perfectly embodying the vast and desolate settings the group continually finds themselves in.
Yet for all its merits, "The Way Back" is surprisingly void of emotion or at least it was for me. I liked all the characters and wanted them to survive (naturally) but it wasn't painful to watch them struggle or inevitably succumb to nature. Director Peter Weir simply tells a story rather than pulling you into the narrative and the movie suffers drastically because of this. You get the feeling that there was so much to this story (which is based on a supposedly non-fiction book) that Weir and his writing partners had to trim a lot of fat to bring the runtime down and in doing so, they cut out all connection and exposition. It's like reading a rather long magazine article on these events rather than taking in an epic, two hour story of survival. "The Way Back" is still worth a viewing and I certainly didn't hate my life while watching, but it is a case of what you get when "what could have been" is a great deal more than "what actually is."