Marius A. Markevicius’s adaptation of the literary YA triumph Between Shades of Gray is a patchwork of pretty shots, moments of historical terror and questions on morality. A coming of age tale with a harrowing twist, Ashes in the Snow takes us to 1943 Siberia and the camps filled with so-called traitors to the Soviet cause. It hauntingly echoes cinematic portrayals of the Holocaust, and with very little information about this side of the war in mainstream education, it’s a welcome addition to the catalogue of war stories.
Beginning in Lithuania, we meet sixteen-year-old Lina (Bel Powley), a normal teenager waiting to receive the results of her application to art school, but who gradually begins to witness the oppression of the new Soviet occupation. Before long, she and her family are among the masses deported and piled onto a train heading into the barren tundra of Siberia and the labour camp that awaits them. The film lacks build-up and favours flashbacks to Lina’s carefree summers, slowly creating a portrait of her once comfortable life.
But the ashes mentioned in the title are those of Lina’s drawings, and it becomes clear that her talent for art – while used in attempts to capture slivers of humanity in their desolate living conditions – can’t save her from everything. The boxes are ticked for the harrowing events most war stories seem to aspire to, featuring suicide, rape, insanity and death abound. But the film’s strength comes from its women, and their boundless instinct to defend what is important. Lina’s mother, Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli), is given almost as much attention as her daughter, acting as a translator between the Soviets and her fellow Lithuanians. She develops a complicated relationship with one of the guards that dominate the side plot a little too much.
But it is Powley’s heroine – given very few lines for the most part – who compels the audience. The halfhearted romance plotline aside, the standout moment of empowering resistance arises when her artistic talent is uncovered, and she is brought face to face with the Commander. He orders her to draw him, and the result places the audience in a gut-wrenching moment of apprehension as her nightmarish interpretation is revealed. After all, she draws what she sees.
A war film so determined to expand our understanding of a massive cast of characters means that it fails to channel enough momentum into Lina and what Powley’s lost moments of fiery performance deserve. It’s ultimately confused about what it wants to be and who it’s about, likely leaning too faithfully on its literary inspiration text. But it is an important story to tell, and Ashes in the Snow will hopefully attract attention from a teenage audience through Powley’s standout performance, and continue to inform more viewers of the history of Lithuania and its people.
Ashes in the Snow is out on Digital HD and DVD on July 15th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything