Peter Weir’s first film in seven years is a tough, often grueling and tremendously moving portrait of human lives put under enormous pressure. Loosely based on a true story (a 1956 memoir that’s still being investigated for authenticity), the film stars Jim Sturgess as a man who stages a prison break from a Siberian internment camp in 1939 and leads a cluster of escapees on an epic trek through the Himalayans and into India. Weir, the brilliant Australian director who gave us The Truman Show, Witness and Dead Poets Society (to name just a few), portrays a brotherhood that is formed over a monumental quest.
We’re meant to believe that the men cover more than 4,000 miles on foot and survive blizzards, carnivorous wildlife, sand storms and heat stroke. The problem isn’t with credibility—the story never feels false or sensational, a testament to the power of the performances, Weir’s no-nonsense direction and the extraordinary scenery, derived from extensive filming in Morocco, Bulgaria, India and Australia. Sturgess, cast as a Paul McCartney fill-in in Across the Universe, finally gives a performance that lives up to his hype as a leading man. He’s intense, barely recognizable and his character’s insatiable need to keep going makes him the tireless, unquestioned leader of the pack. Ed Harris is as wonderful and prickly as you’d expect and Saorise Ronan does a lot with a crucial second-act character, but the nicest surprise is Colin Ferrell, whose Irish brogue vanishes behind a pitch-perfect Russian accent.
Burkhard Dallwitz’s powerful score is used sparingly, with many scenes effectively devoid of a soundtrack (the unsettling prison camp sequences would have been undermined by the comfort of music). If the film has any flaw, it’s that the men on this journey aren’t fully fleshed-out as characters, but the film addresses this in an interesting way; despite walking thousands of miles together, these guys don’t do a lot of talking and only when they’re on the edge of death do they offer comfort and a listening ear.
Weir hasn’t made a film since 2003’s Master and Commander and his presence has been missed. His latest is typically unsentimental, brutal and rewarding—but walk in expecting a compelling character study, not an action movie.
As with all great survivalist tales, you’ll find yourself clutching your popcorn, thinking of it as a bag of “rations” to save. And the ending will turn even the most cynical moviegoers into weeping piles of tear-soaked poi.