THE WAY BACK (12A)****

Inspired by Slavomir Rawicz's memoir The Long Walk: The True Story Of A Trek To Freedom, The Way Back is a harrowing tale of courage and endurance against the odds during the Second World War.

Australian director Peter Weir certainly has the pedigree to tackle such sweeping subject matter.

He recreated the hard fought Gallipoli Campaign in his 1981 film starring Mel Gibson and took reality TV to chilling extremes in The Truman Show.

Most recently, he ventured on the high seas with Russell Crowe for Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World.

Weir's new film is epic in scope, combining elements of Rawicz's book with first-person accounts told to the director and co-writer Keith Clarke as part of their extensive research.

Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who won an Oscar for Master And Commander, captures the rugged beauty of the frozen wastelands of Siberia and the Mongolian desert, where the story unfolds.

We get a vivid sense of the physical ordeal that lies ahead for the characters as they embark on a 4,000 mile trek to freedom that we know, from a caption at the beginning of the film, will end in tragedy for more than half of the cast.

In Soviet-occupied Poland, officer Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is falsely incriminated as a foreign spy by his wife (Sally Edwards) and sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia.

"Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy!" barks the camp commander, referring to the miles of snow that surround the prison.

Behind the gulag walls, Janusz meets Khabarov (Mark Strong), who claims that escape is possible if they head south to Lake Baikal, using the elements to cover their tracks.

Russian thug Valka (Colin Farrell), enigmatic American prisoner Mr Smith (Ed Harris), youngster Kazik (Sebastian Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Alexandru Potocean), Voss (Gustaf Skarsgard) and Zoran (Dragos Bucur) complete the escape party.

Teenage refugee Irena (Saoirse Ronan) joins the remarkable odyssey but as the gulag chief predicted, Mother Nature is vicious.

The Way Back maintains a deliberately slow pace so we are with the escapees every arduous step of the way.

We share their grief as one man meets a heartbreaking demise as a result of his night blindness, symptomatic of working down the gulag mines.

We shiver in the cold and feel the rippling heat of the desert where more of the prisoners take their final breaths.

Sturgess, Harris and Farrell deliver strong performances, while Ronan once again demonstrates emotional depth beyond her tender years in a vivid supporting role.

The enormity of what the real escapees achieved overshadows anything that Weir could ever commit to celluloid.

But at 132 minutes, The Way Back allows us to walk for a while in their historic footsteps.

The gang were jailed for a total of 96 years

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