Chronicles the escape of a small group of multi-national prisoners from a Siberian gulag in 1940, and their epic journey over thousands of miles across five hostile countries.

A great escape leads to a harrowing test of endurance.

Epic stories don’t always translate into epic movies and so it proves with Peter Weir’s The Way Back, his first film since 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Yet there is much to admire about the survival saga of seven men who escaped from a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp in 1940 and embarked on a perilous 6,400 km journey, later joined by an enigmatic Polish girl.

The performances by the ensemble cast are first-rate, Russell Boyd’s vivid cinematography exploits an array of stunning locations, and there are copious scenes of stirring drama. Rarely has a $US30 million budget been invested in a film with such handsome production values.

The chief drawbacks are the excessive length – 2 hours 13 minutes – and the relentlessly grim, gruelling tone of much of the movie before its uplifting finale, which threatens to become an endurance test for audiences.

After the critical acclaim and solid box-office results for Master and Commander, which won Oscars for Boyd’s lensing and Richard King’s sound editing, Weir must have been bitterly disappointed with the US response to The Way Back. Rejected by the major distributors, the independently-financed movie was launched on 678 screens in January by a company owned by one of the co-producers. Four weeks later it was gone after earning just $2.6 million.

I think the Americans got it wrong, demonstrating yet again their aversion to intelligent, serious-minded movies about challenging subjects, just as they didn’t embrace Danny Boyle’s superb 127 Hours.

The screenplay, which Weir co-wrote with Keith Clarke, is based on the 1956 book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz, who claimed to have escaped from a Siberian labour camp during WW2 and headed to India via Mongolia and Tibet, as do the protagonists in Weir’s movie. (The veracity of the book has since been questioned.)

The chilling opening sees young Polish officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess) being interrogated and accused of criticising the Communist Party and spying for foreign powers after being informed on his tearful wife, who was tortured.

He’s sent to snowy Siberia, where he and other inmates are warned by a gaoler against trying to flee: 'If nature doesn’t kill you, the locals will." A bounty has been placed on the head of anyone who escapes.

Determined to reunite with his wife, Janusz teams up with six other men including a taciturn American who calls himself 'Mr Smith" (Ed Harris), a knife-wielding Russian gangster (a heavily tattooed, menacing Colin Farrell, sporting a plausible accent), a Latvian priest with a guilty conscience (Gustaf Skarsgård), a fun-loving Yugoslav (Dragos Bucur), an artist (Alexandru Potocean), and an innocent teenager (Sebastian Urzendowsky).

They cut through the wire fence during a blinding snowstorm – a brilliantly staged sequence – and set off on a marathon journey across snowy forests and later stony desert, sand dunes and mountains, battling freezing cold, blazing heat, hunger, thirst and disease. Not all survive; the first casualty is heartrending.

Along the way they meet a Polish girl (Saoirse Ronan) who claims her parents were killed and she escaped from a Russian collective farm. Further deaths seem inevitable but are no less shocking. There are a few moments of wit to leaven the often bleak mood.

Sturgess is the stand-out among the exemplary cast as an ordinary man thrust into the role of leader and, ultimately, hero: he is the film’s moral centre.

Boyd switches between close-ups revealing the characters’ great suffering, courage and stoicism (kudos to the make-up team, who’ve been nominated for an Oscar), mid-range shots and wide screen, showing tiny figures trudging through various harsh landscapes.

Some critics castigated the final coda as contrived and trite: I found it deeply moving. This is a bold, visionary and ambitious film of the type that Hollywood rarely makes these days, more’s the pity. It deserves to reach a sizable audience here.

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2 hours 13 min
In Cinemas 24 February 2011,
Thu, 07/28/2011 - 11