It’s a while since we last had a film from Peter Weir (Picnic At Hanging Rock, Witness).
2003’s Master And Commander, though earning an Oscar nod or two, failed to catch light at the box office and put something of a dent in his career.
In any case, the aussie-born director is famously selective about his projects. But now he’s back, with a typically substantial, well-made and intelligent movie. So has it been worth the wait?
The opening scene is searing. It’s 1940, the time of the nazi-soviet pact, and Poland has been split between Hitler’s and Stalin’s forces. in the russian half a Polish officer, Janusz Wieczak (Jim sturgess), is arrested on charges of anti-Communist espionage.
He staunchly denies them.
Bring in the witness, orders the stony-faced commissar, and a young woman, weeping and broken by torture, is led in – Janusz’s wife.
Next stop for Janusz is a particularly hellish Siberian gulag – from which, the commandant announces, escape is impossible. So, half an hour into the movie, Janusz duly escapes with six fellow prisoners – including street criminal Valka (Colin Farrell) and us engineer Mr Smith (Ed Harris). Their goal: India, several thousand miles distant.
And that, in plot terms, is about it. We know (since an opening title has helpfully told us) that not all of them will make it. We know there’ll be appalling hardships – cold, heat, mountains, deserts, hunger, thirst, snakes, sandstorms – as they plod their way through russia, Mongolia, China and tibet.
But as episode follows episode there are precious few surprises. Yes, a girl shows up (Saoirse Ronan), but turns out she’s just there to soften Smith’s flinty heart and arouse his fatherly feelings, and once that’s done we can lose her.
The acting is gritty, the locations convincing, the photography impressive, the scripting well-crafted. But we’re always on the outside looking in, and nothing in the endless trek packs half the emotional impact of that opening scene.
Weir’s gulag-break film makes a conscientious stab at ‘triumph of the human spirit’ uplift. It’s all painstakingly done – but not quite as involving as it should be.