Ashes in the Snow is a heartbreaking tale of losing one’s innocence in the worst way imaginable, by a regime that cares as little for you as it does its soldiers. What should be a home run of a film struggles to remain compelling despite some particularly strong performances.
Talented young artist Lina (Bel Powley) is anxiously waiting to be accepted into a prestigious art college in 1941 Lithuania. Just as her letter arrives the Soviets come and remove her family and others out of the country and into work camps. Lina, her mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and her brother Jonas are separated from their father as they endeavour to return to him one day and to live beyond their torturous captivity from the Russians.
Few films broach the subject of the atrocities that Stalin enacted during his reign, which makes Ashes in the Snow vitally important viewing. Sadly the film fails in making what should be very compelling material (the film is adapted from Ruta Septeys’s novel Between Shades of Gray) and with countless accounts of what occurred during this time it should not be difficult to find a character to cling to and want to see make it through this horror. Yet as we explain later on the film focuses far too much on another character to make us fully feel for Lina.
For a film that centres so much of the story on Lina, Ashes in the Snow stops us from viewing a fulfilling character development. We start the film by seeing that this is a young woman who is happier drawing in her bedroom than socialising with others her age. The one time we continually see her around others in flashbacks, she is too shy to strip and run naked into the water with the others, but she is confident enough to steal the clothes from a boy to get his attention. We are not given more than that from her. We get the idea that she is fairly innocent and what happens in the next year’s horrendous events form her into a tougher woman. This morphing into a tougher person happens, but there is a struggle somehow to make a strong connection with Lina, which is puzzling.
Martin Wallström’s Nikolia Kretzsky on the other hand seems to have also be positioned as almost a joint lead. The events of Lina and her family are continually tied to him. He has a stronger arc, whether that is on purpose or accidental it Is unsure. We see a part Russian, part Ukrainian man seemingly forced into service, made to kill innocent men and women and slowly lose his humanity and morals. At the beginning of Ashes in the Snow, he is doubtful of everything. He knows these people and he wants to help them, but in his eyes, he is as much a prisoner as the tortured souls he watches over.
As the film progresses, we see a man lose everything he had pre-war in his emotional and mental state and by the time he is shipped off to Siberia with a group containing Lina’s family. He knows he is sent to die, a cog in the machine. He has nothing left as a man or a person and ultimately spirals because of it. This arc is everything we should see with Lina, we feel for him despite hating what he does. By having two different integral arcs interwoven into the story, we lose the power of Lina’s story. Simple moments as her learning Russian from her mother and a book given to her, so she can communicate in one of the final scenes, should be filled with power. However, we are struck more by how hapless and lost Kretzsky is. Ashes in the Snow needed to decide on who should be central to the film and it failed at it here.
The film for some reason gives us a long unrealised love story between Lina and fellow prisoner Andrius. There is no build-up to this or it was left on the cutting room floor, as other than a few looks between the two, we are suddenly presented with the two constantly doing things for each other. There is no reasoning for it and it costs us precious time with Lina on matters that should be of greater concern.
It is the older cast who shine here with Lisa Loven Kongsli being astonishing as Elena. Her utter defiance is slowly but surely broken down as Ashes in the Snow progresses. She is being strong for her family, her community, her country. But one person can only be so strong for so long and the pain and torment get her to a heartbreaking finale in Siberia. Martin Wallström is particularly strong as Nikolia and makes a character who we shouldn’t want to really feel anything for, feel more so than our lead due to some particularly wooden big-eyed acting from Powley.
Ashes in the Snow has all the potential to be a jarringly blunt look at Soviet control of Lithuania and other countries. Yet, it falls in the script by not being confident enough to focus more on one character and costs itself the chance of really opening the eyes for those who knew little of what happened.
Signature Entertainment presents Ashes in the Snow on Amazon Prime Video 19th February
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