A Russian gulag does not make for cozy living. In the middle of the cold Siberian hellscape, the camp commander reminds the prisoners that the compound isn’t their prison: the environment is. A handful of prisoners decide to make a break for it, and what starts off as a gritty escape film devolves ludicrousness.
Seven prisoners, including Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Jim Sturgess, escape from the prison only to face the bitter elements. Starvation, dehydration, and trench foot plague the party as they try to escape Stalinist rule to nearby Mongolia.
The attached poster serves as a symbolic representation of the film. You don’t see any Russian gulags, just the faces of some notable stars with someone triumphantly reaching the top of a hill before everyone else. The main problem is that the film consists of two different beasts, the weaker being the one shown in the poster.
The first half is a messy, painful journey to Mongolia. But as soon as the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan) crashes the all-male party, she softens the hearts of the men as well as the film’s whole tone. The premise that the girl escaped from a collective farm to go along with the gents feels less like an organic part of the plot and more like a naked attempt to pull at some heart-strings in the audience.
Similarly, the film starts with pack leader Janusz (Jim Sturgess) being turned over to the Russians by his wife. Janusz then goes on for almost the whole film’s run-time without mentioning his wife. Which is why it’s a tribute to clunky storytelling when Janusz, in the film’s last minutes, says he needs to get back to his wife. If he was honest he’d say, “We need to wrap this up somehow.”
And the ending is quite awful. The “I’ve got to get back to my wife” motivation is slapped on like glue on a second grader’s art project and the way in which Janusz eventually gets back to his wife is equally amateur. When the men have escaped to Tibet (Mongolia turned out to be Soviet turf), Janusz tells Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) that he’ll “keep walking” until he’s able to reach his wife. Once they reach India (Tibet wasn’t safe enough either, apparently), there’s a terrible effect in which we literally see Janusz’s shuffling feet over a montage of historical bullet points tracking the rise and fall of the Soviet empire in 1989. At this point an old Janusz walks into his old house to find his old wife, who welcomes him into her old arms. I don’t know if you can picture these moments properly, so I’ll sum it up: It looks really stupid.*
MAJOR SPOILERS OVER
The first half of the film is commendable for showing the scope and nastiness (in terms of both the amenities and some of the inmates) of the camp. Ed Harris’ gruff American attitude as Mr. Smith adds tough guy flavor and there’s real vileness in Colin Farrell’s convincing role as Russian criminal Valka. The film also tries to use as much Russian as possible and where not, at least uses Russian accents. The British-accented portrayal of Nazis in Valkyrie it ain’t.
Other than that, it’s a bad film since it never knows what theme it wants to pursue. Check out Van Diemen’s Land if you want a gritty escape picture without the insipid fluff.
*Once the men reach India, I thought to myself, “Everyone’s so joyful, they might as well have the wife randomly be there to greet them.” Imagine my surprise when, in a roundabout manner, they did just that by having Janusz get back to his wife via a few minutes of montage. Why not just leave it hanging on the note, “I’m going to get back to my wife….”?