Ashes in the Snow Review
Ashes in the Snow, directed by Marius Markevicius from a script by Ben York Jones adapts the YA novel Between the Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. It has an opening title card which often leaves me cold: “Inspired By True Events. These words usually imply that the actual truth of the covered story is buried under numerous layers of interpretation and artistic merit. The historical premise of Ashes in the Snow is the annexation and deportation of Lithuanian citizens by the despot Stalin's Soviet Union, during the Second World War with men, women and children transported to labour camps in Serbia. The treacherous journey became a death sentence to some before they had even gotten close to the horrendous Prison camps and brutally harsh environment.
The film's introduction to this fractious period is through the artistically gifted, Lina (Bel Powley), a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Lina's dream of a Fine Arts Scholarship is dismissed by her weary, realist mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli) whilst her idealist father Kostas (Sam Hazeldine) supports her dream as an extension of his own character and mores. This quibble in world views is the only apparent conflict until the arrest of the entire family. Lina and Elena are separated from Kostas as they are all manhandled onto trains heading to unknown destinations and horrors. Lina remains our protagonist, as she views the escalating cruelty and torment of innocent residents being arrested and beaten, and the cold-blooded murder of “traitors” who dissatisfies the spiteful and sadistic soviet soldiers.
Officer Nikolai Kretzsky (Martin Wallström) a Lithuanian soldier in the Soviet Army is the nebulous counterpoint to the purity of Lina. Kretzky battles with the continual internal conflict of turning his back on his own family and country and following his duty as a reluctant but subservient officer. Wallström's performance is stellar and his struggles almost palpable in each of his scenes. The character is regularly tempted to act in kindness, but his responsibilities and his fearful acquiescence and slavish following of orders by his superior, Commander Komarov (Peter Franzen), ensures his own downward spiral into depravity and cruelty.
The depictions of violence and barbarity are probably accurate for the time portrayed but there is a cold detachment from the events that is more reminiscent of a family-friendly TV Drama with overly pristine and varnished cinematography to boot. Powley is mesmerising as the wide-eyed heroine. Her facial expressions a clear barometer for the harrowing events unfolding all around her and threatening to completely eviscerate her humanity and innocence. That said, we don't really know much about the character and we don't learn much either as the film progresses.
The bleak arc of her personal journey saunters from sincere shyness to distinct defiance, but the agony and growth is rushed and unconvincing in its simplicity and impact. The predictable tragedy and revelations following it are engineered to illicit meaning and pathos, but ultimately achieves only mediocre metaphor status. The final scene falls short in execution too, the obvious trope of endurance and hope comes across as trite and undeserved.
The events of this horrific period is deserving of exploration, but perhaps it would have benefitted from a bit more character development, even optimism, along with the substantial misery and melodrama.