Movies: The Way Back **
(12A, general release)
At first glance, Peter Weir's The Way Back has everything going for it: a Siberian gulag, a great escape, a long walk to freedom and a story that is based on real experiences. That is, it may be based on real experiences, for the veracity of the book on which its based is open to doubt.
In 1956, a former Polish soldier called Stamowir Rawicz released a memoir called The Long Walk, in which he described his daring escape from a Stalinist labour camp and months-long trudge through China and Tibet to British India, and freedom. Rawicz died in 2004, but Polish Army records have subsequently cast doubt on his account. However, all of this is a moot point because The Way Back takes Rawicz's version as read, and stands or fails on its ability to entertain.
Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young soldier who ends up in a hellish Siberian labour camp after being arrested in Soviet-occupied Poland. When he befriends a grim-faced American called Smith (Ed Harris), they decide to escape, and when they do a small group of prisoners, including a shifty and murderous criminal called Valka (Colin Farrell), goes with them. The odds, though, aren't good, and they must survive the end of a brutal Siberian winter and an epic journey across the vast wastes of China if they are to escape the Kremlin's long reach.
There is great dramatic potential in all this, but Peter Weir and his writers largely manage to squander it. Mr Weir has always had a weakness for landscapes, and these he lovingly photographs at the expense of his story.
Some of the acting is quite decent, especially from Saoirse Ronan, who plays a stray girl they pick up on the way. But, all in all, The Way Back is so bereft of incident and human interest that you end up feeling as if you've walked every step of the 4,000 miles yourself by the time you get to the end of it.