Release dates are a funny business. The distributors of Peter Weir's latest The Way Back are convinced that, come Boxing Day 2010, the British public will have spent so long trekking through the snow to spend dismaying hours at a time with in-laws and other relatives that a drama about a true-life escape from a Siberian gulag might count as enticing light relief. Perhaps the publicity department's idea was to evoke fond memories of such bank-holiday perennials as The Great Escape; and while the film - Weir's first since Master and Commander in 2003 - is intended as substantially more serious than that, it doesn't stop it from being the sort of thing you could well imagine nodding off to in front of the the telly after one turkey sandwich too many.
As its principals hike south across the frozen wastes, into Mongolia and then onwards onto Tibet, a closer point of comparison would be 2008's Defiance, only with more snow, and the vaguest hint of spiritual enlightenment at the end of it. You can see why the project might have caught the discerning and selective Weir's eye: it has obvious epic scope, and - within that - offers a consideration of man's place within his environment, a recurring concern of this director's ever since 1977's eco-thriller The Last Wave (or, indeed, Picnic at Hanging Rock before it), lent further clout here by the appearance of National Geographic among the new film's numerous producers.
Whatever went on before the cameras started rolling, however, the finished work feels disappointingly disjointed, even compromised. Maybe we should have expected the usual co-production halfway house of acting styles. Jim Sturgess and Mark Strong, as Polish POWs, speak their lines in English with heavily Slar-vikked accents; Ed Harris fares slightly better in his own tongue as the hard-as-granite American Mr. Smith; so, too, does Colin Farrell, who actually gets to flash a few words of authentic Russian as a rough, tough criminal prepared to stab a man for his sweater. (The Farrellian patina of grime - that tacit understanding the actor probably reeks of cigarettes, and that his fingernails would be in a right old state - is here put to its exact proper employ.)
The escapees' battle to survive is rendered in a series of varyingly obvious episodes - one freezes to death in a forest clearing overnight, another joins the wolves in devouring a bloody animal carcass - dotted with hallucinations and nightmares that serve as the latest manifestations of Weir's long-evident mystic streak. Few of these add up to anything much, however, and the threat facing the characters is limited to the vague and shifting one of Nature. We're given no sense these prisoners were pursued by the authorities, and though we're told early on that a bounty has been placed on the heads of all those who try to escape the gulag's clutches, those few locals the group encounter seem only too willing to help with such gifts as homemade mosquito repellent. (When the most tangible menace facing your characters is a plague of gnats, you know you're in trouble.)
The story, like the film, devolves into no more than an endurance test, bereft of the vision, energy and immediacy Danny Boyle grants to the upcoming 127 Hours. Weir and co-writer Keith Clarke have taken as their source Slavomir Rawicz's novel The Long Walk, and that's exactly what The Way Back is: a film not of a book, nor really of history, but of an exceptionally, tryingly long walk. By the time a parched Harris, Sturgess and co. reach the desert - picking up Saoirse Ronan en route as the screen's least intoxicating, least convincing gypsy woman - one cannot help but be reminded of those adverts for a certain brand of lager; and it's all you can do not to wake with a start and a brisk inquiry of "Are we there yet?"
The Way Back opens in cinemas nationwide on Boxing Day.