Review: The Way Back (12A)***

The palpable lack of tension throughout this drawn-out story of escape and evasion makes The Way Back feel almost as long as the journey undertaken from Siberia by the film's protagonists.

The rag-tag band that flees from a brutal Russian gulag battles freezing rain, wolves, hunger, hallucinations and themselves as they strike out for Mongolia and freedom.

They don't talk much. Instead their focus is on a far-off horizon that represents a life away from their cruel Soviet captors. Each man has his own secrets, his own personal history. And each man will find a harsh truth on the road.

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Based on Slavomir Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Peter Weir's odyssey lingers on these varied figures in a landscape.

In fact, landscape becomes as important a character as any of the random men (and solitary woman) at the story's core as Weir adopts a travelogue-style approach, taking his survivors from icy wasteland to burning desert plain.

The appearance of an enigmatic young woman (Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement) is the catalyst that allows Weir to put flesh on the bones of his haggard cast. There is an accountant, an engineer, a chef, a priest and a tattooed mystery man. They are played by an ensemble cast that includes Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Alexandru Potocean.

These are ordinary men faced with an extraordinary situation of epic proportions: a forced march of thousands of miles towards an uncertain goal. En-route there are comments on 1940s-era Soviet Communism. On reaching the Mongolian border, they are be greeted with a red star and a portrait of Stalin. "So it's here, too," mutters Harris's ex-pat American.

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If it was the wish of Weir and co-screenwriter Keith Clarke to underwrite the men, they succeed. Only Valka, the street criminal played by Farrell, emerges with any sense of identity.

It is Farrell who offers up the notion of cannibalism, eyeing a sickly member of the group with mad-eyed relish. And it is Farrell who decides to turn back at the Soviet border, preferring the only life he has ever known to the uncertainty of freedom.

Weir almost deliberately shies away from any sense of drama or violence. The group's breakout is hinted at, not shown. The slaughter of a trapped animal is delivered off camera. And the aftermath of mass murder at a Buddhist temple is shown via charred timbers and blasted bones hidden in the ground.

Thus our companions struggle on. The finale, when it comes, lacks emotion and punch – surely not what Rawicz intended when he wrote his book.

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