It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Not every incredible story makes a compelling movie. "The Way Back" is inspired by a 4,000-mile foot journey that began with an escape from a Siberian prison camp in the dead of winter and continued across Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, ending finally months later in free India.
At every moment this is astonishing. Mongolia itself was said to be a prison because no one was thought able to walk out of it. Starvation is a daily possibility. So are injuries, disease, death by exposure or capture by locals eager to collect a reward. Thirst and sun are nearly fatal in the desert. The travelers have only the clothes on their backs. We know some of them reached India, because the saga opens with that news.
But how did they possibly do that? Just as we're told: by walking. Walking and walking. And there lies the weakness of Peter Weir's film, which is nobly staged and has breathtaking cinematography but frankly, not enough of a story in the vulgar populist sense. Desperation and exhaustion make it difficult for the trekkers to work up much in the way of characters or conflicts, and while that no doubt spares us many cliches, we are left during their long walk with too much of a muchness.
The group is often so bearded and weathered that members seem interchangeable. Two who stand out are Ed Harris an American, who claims his name is only "Mr. Smith," and Colin Farrell as Valka, a Russian. (Has Harris ever given a bad performance?) The group is led by Jim Sturgess as Janusz, who's had the idea for the escape. Along the way they meet Irene (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish woman. Her presence does not inspire romantic rivalries among the men. It's that kind of film.