The film claims to be based on a true story. Indeed it is based on Slavomir Rawicz's novel THE LONG WALK, but since its publication the BBC has discredited its account. Some critics have used this to attack the film's faithfulness to the book, which has a great deal of surviving and little interpersonal conflict that makes survival stories really compelling. While I agree that ramped up drama helps, but I found the lack of it here refreshing.
Janusz (Jim Sturgess, ONE DAY) has been sent to a gulag for crimes against the state in which his wife was forced to rat him out. The first person he meets in prison is Khabarov (Mark Strong, STARDUST), who tells him of his plan to escape, which fills Janusz with hope. However, the American Mr. Smith (Ed Harris, APOLLO 13) tells him that Khabarov is a fraud and tells the same story to all newbies as way to parasitically live off their optimism. But Janusz isn't interested in living off dreams and decides to go through with the seemingly impossible escape.
Siberia serves as the virtual walls of their prison. To escape across the frozen tundra is tantamount to suicide. But Janusz decides to do it in a blizzard using the storm as cover. If they make it through the storm, they could freeze or starve to death. If they survive that they have to endure the 4,000-mile walk to India through deserts, disease filled swarms and Communist controlled lands where anyone would jump at the chance to turn in escaped escapees. To live to the next they must steal, hunt, scout, take risks, improvise and ride on a dose of luck.
Some in the group are simply types, but others stick out. Janusz is motivated by love. He wants to find his wife to tell her that he still loves her and understands she had no choice. Mr. Smith is a pragmatist who is good at thinking on his feet. He likes his odds with Janusz in the group, because the young man in kind and an idealist so he wouldn't leave Smith behind if he ever go injured or sick. Valka (Colin Farrell, IN BRUGES) is a convict who was only out for himself at the prison, but see the value in their numbers in surviving… for a time. Despite being sent away due to Stalin and Lenin, he remains a true believer in these "great men." The men run into Irena (Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT) is a young Polish girl who has a heroic story to tell, but one wonders if it is true.
Surprisingly, the group works well together. As some complains, it takes one level of tension away, but it adds focus. Peter Weir (MASTER AND COMMANDER) is more interested in the sheer scope of what these men would have had to endure. It's unlikely that they could have done it on their own. Survival tales tend to support the human spirit and this one adds another layer because it shows people of different walks of life coming together and forming a family of sorts.
The worst thing I could say about the story is that after awhile the threat lessens because we know right from the start that most of the group survives. Obstacles keep coming, but the group doesn't suffer huge setbacks.
That said, Weir, who adapted the book with Keith R. Clarke (IN SEARCH OF DR. SEUSS), presents the facts and makes us wonder if it is really possible. If these characters were really the ones attempting it, I believed, yes, it could be possible. They have what they need — Mr. Smith's planning, Valka's ruthlessness and Janusz's determination. Without one of those, the rest might not be enough. Whether the story is real or not doesn't matter here because it's a story told well and we can believe in that.