Does it matter that Slavomir Rawicz's ghostwritten 1956 best-seller, about his escape from a Siberian gulag and subsequent 4,000-mile walk to India, might have been a colossal fake? (The BBC has unearthed his amnesty release papers.) It still makes for a ripping yarn, and Peter Weir, the venerated director last seen stewarding 2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, doesn't need any excuse to work. Weir now finds himself in the tricky position of calling his movie "a fiction," but it sure feels lived-in: After we're introduced to our heroic, hard-bitten band of badasses---kindhearted inmate Janusz (Sturgess), American spy "Mr. Smith" (Harris) and Russian thug Valka (Farrell, impressive)---they're fleeing into the woods, exchanging wary stare-downs and chewing on bark.
The Way Back then takes its time, creeping through gorgeous locations in Bulgaria, Morocco and Pakistan, and basically feeling like a two-hour-plus version of the desert scene from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (Lots of parched lips here.) Why, then, does this not quite equal awesome? Weir has the patience of a seasoned vet, and his intimate eye, combined with the relaxed pace, is refreshing in today's cut-up climate. But he is also the lush image-maker behind that glorious barn-building sequence in Witness---not to mention the colorful vistas of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Truman Show. Weir never attains that level of grandeur and, as a result, feels cut off from a key part of his art. (Oddly, he's not well served by his longtime cinematographer, Russell Boyd, who flattens much of the film.) You can still get off on the manliness of the movie, which modulates into paternal worry after Saoirse Ronan's waif shows up.
Watch the trailer