After MASTER AND COMMANDER/’03, Peter Weir took eight years to return to the screen with this putatively true prison escape pic. The story is less about a daring escape from a Siberian Gulag in the early 1940s then about the ensuing heroic 4,000 mile trek by the seven escapees and a young Polish woman who joins them later. The film moves along on a Homeric series of impossible physical obstacles (water, weather, victuals, Russians) that have to be met, conquered or finessed, but the characters and story feel underdeveloped, psychologically & dramatically inert. Only in the third act, when the number of survivors has narrowed, do we get the kind of interpersonal dynamics that coax the film to life. Weir probably errs in holding off on the backstories, they’re doled out to provide variety over the course of the long march to freedom. The lack of personal information keeps us from making a full emotional investment in the characters. On its limited terms, it’s hard to find much to pick at (other than Colin Farrell chewing up the scenery as a proletariat tough guy), but the film never justifies its existence and tanked commercially with a near career-stopping thud.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: For snowbound Siberian wildness, try Akira Kurosawa’s DERSU UZALA/’75 about an aging man of the forest and his friendship with a modern surveyor.