War is evil, not only because of the atrocities committed by invading armies, but also because of the atrocities that victims are sometimes forced to commit in an effort to survive.
As The Way Back begins, Janusz (Jim Sturgess) a young Polish freedom fighter, is being interrogated by the Russian police. Janusz's wife, in obvious agony from both physical torture and mental anguish, testifies against him, and he is sent to Siberia. There he meets a variety of prisoners, some incarcerated for political crimes and others for street crimes. The true criminals run the living quarters, and the guards run the work camps.
The most notorious prisons have always been guarded not by men but by nature. Devil's Island, Alcatraz, Ushuaia at the southern tip of South America were all known for harsh surroundings that made successful escape virtually impossible. Siberia, the prisoners are told, is surrounded by "five million square miles of snow." Nevertheless, Janusz and others hatch a scheme to escape the prison and make their way across the Trans-Siberian tracks to Mongolia with a motley group of friends that includes Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), an artist; Khabarov (Mark Strong) a pastor; Smith (Ed Harris), an American; and Valka (Colin Farrell), a common street thug. When Smith warns Janusz that not everyone will make it alive, Janusz responds, "They won't all survive, but they will die free men."
Within the prison we see the free market at work as the men barter their skills for meager material goods such as cigarettes, food, and clothing. One man paints pictures; another offers protection; yet another tells stories. Each of these men harbors a secret sorrow that fills him with unspeakable regret — regret for something he has done, as a result of the war, to a friend or family member; regret that drives him forward, seeking absolution or perhaps punishment. Janusz is driven by the determination to tell his wife he forgives her and release her from the self-loathing he knows she must feel for having informed against him.
The trek across 4,000 kilometers of snow and desert leads many of the men to a soul-cleansing sacrifice. This theme is personified in the portrayal of Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a girl they meet along the way. As they cross the Mongolian Desert, one of the men weaves for her a large wreath of bent twigs to protect her from the searing sun. The hat brings to mind the crown of thorns Christ wore during his trek toward Calvary. As they march across the desert she leans heavily upon a wooden staff and falters several times, falling to her knees and then being helped up by the men. At one point, she lies on the sand and the hat falls behind her to reveal the soft blue scarf she wears beneath it. She looks up at them with the calm serenity of a Madonna and smiles a peaceful benediction at them. If more proof is needed that she is a combination Madonna and Christ figure, Irena even walks on water — well, she runs across a frozen river — and she gently washes Smith's blistered feet when they find an oasis. These are small moments in the film, but they express one of its major themes in a subtle and moving way.
The richly orchestrated original score by Burkhard von Dallwitz contributes to the emotion of the film and keeps most of the audience in its seat till the end of the credits, savoring the experience. The cinematography by Russell Boyd is also gorgeous, focusing on the grand landscapes of the desert, the Himalayas, and the starlit skies, as one would expect from a film produced by National Geographic. Some wide-angle scenes of the weary travelers are so perfectly composed that they give new meaning to the phrase "moving pictures." These are literally photographs that move. Director Peter Weir adds to this impression by presenting each scene as a separate snapshot of the journey, without narrative transition. At times one almost feels that one is turning the pages of a photo album.
This does not distract, however, from the development of the characters and their story. When they start their journey, the men are almost like animals. They eat food that has been stomped into the earth; they lap water from muddy pools. Colin Farrell as the Russian criminal, Valka, paces like a lone wolf on the outskirts of the group. He is ruthless, unpredictable, and inhumanly willing to kill for survival. Smith only half jokingly calls Janusz's kindness a "weakness" that he plans to exploit when he needs someone to carry him. At one point the men chase a pack of wolves away from a freshly killed animal, then fall onto the carcass themselves, tearing at the raw meat and elbowing one another out of the way in their frenzied hunger.
These scenes are harrowing. But they do not dominate the movie. Even more impressive is the symbolic transition from the darkness of the Siberian forest to the bright light of the desert. The further the men journey from their physical prison, the more their sense of humanity returns, releasing them from their internal prisons. The Way Back is not just a movie about traveling back home, but about finding a way back from the darkness of war to the light of human dignity and self-respect. It is truly a wonderful film.