'Ashes in the Snow': Film Review | LAFF 2018

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
Grim chronicle of a historical tragedy.

Bel Powley and a strong international cast headline this story of the crimes committed by Stalin during World War II.

One of the most ambitious movies presented at the recent LA Film Festival, Ashes in the Snow is an epic tale filmed almost entirely in Lithuania, with an international cast headed by Bel Powley but also featuring actors from Norway and Sweden, as well as the U.K. and the U.S. The pic is a bit too somber and unrelentingly bleak to draw much of an audience beyond the festival circuit, but it does showcase a number of talented actors and filmmakers.

Although many movies have dramatized the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, far fewer have exposed the abuses of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Set during World War II, the film addresses the crimes committed by Stalin against the Eastern European countries that became part of the Soviet empire. The main characters are a family living in Lithuania, and the heroine is a young aspiring artist named Lina, played by Powley. She and her mother and brother join the other residents of her town in forced emigration to a remote area of Siberia. The adaptation comes from a popular novel by Ruta Sepetys and was helmed by a Los Angeles-based director of Lithuanian heritage, Marius Markevicius. The film is heartfelt and often powerful, but sometimes too sluggish to carry maximum impact.

It certainly benefits from a series of fine performances. Powley, who has distinguished herself in such different movies as Diary of a Teenage Girl, Carrie Pilby and White Boy Rick, puts us on Lina's side from the very earliest scenes, which dramatize her hopefulness along with her artistic talent. But some of the other performances are even stronger. Norwegian actress Lisa Loven Kongsli, who played the female lead in Force Majeure and also appeared in a very different kind of movie, Wonder Woman, gives an absolutely shattering performance as her mother, who does not have quite the same stamina as the much younger Lina. 

Swedish actor Martin Wallstrom, who has co-starred on TV’s Mr. Robot, etches a complex character here. He is a Ukrainian soldier among the Russians, and although he is forced to carry out his superiors’ orders, he never feels fully accepted by his fellow officers. So he develops a measure of sympathy for Lina, though his divided loyalties ensure that he will never be able to satisfy the demands of either duty or conscience. He is a genuinely tragic figure, and Wallstrom plays him forcefully.

Ashes in the Snow is also an impressive physical production. The stark but striking settings are eloquently caught by Markevicius and cinematographer Ramunas Greicius. The desolate Siberian landscape becomes a potent character in the drama, and when Lina and her family are forced to move to an even more forbidding location, their agony comes through convincingly. This may be what makes the film punishing rather than dramatically gripping, however. There is not enough variety in the scenes of torment to keep us fully engaged, and the pacing sometimes flags. It is admittedly a challenge to execute this kind of story of brutalization without leaving the audience feeling somewhat brutalized as well. The history is very much worth retelling, but the film might have benefited from a touch of poetry, along with the misery.

Production companies: Sorrento Productions, Tauras Films, Twilight Merengue Studios
Cast: Bel Powley, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Martin Wallstrom, Sam Hazeldine, Peter Franzen, Sophie Cookson
Director: Marius Markevicius
Screenwriter: Ben York Jones, based on the novel
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Producers: Zilvinas Naujokas, Marius Markevicius, Chris Coen, Prithvi Chavan
Executive producers: Ruta Sepetys, Jonathan Schwartz
Director of photography: Ramunas Greicius
Production designer: Jurgita Gerdvilaite
Costume designer: Daiva Petrulyte
Editor: Jonathan Dillon
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Venue: LA Film Festival

99 minutes