Inspired by the harrowing true events dramatized in Ruta Sepetys’s best-selling 2011 novel set in the midst of Stalin’s genocide of the Baltic people, Ashes in the Snow (a title that’s a bit too on-the-nose for its own good, but a clever change from the source material’s unfortunately timed name, Between Shades of Gray) is never a subtle film. Through a dreary, unrelentingly hushed color palette, director Marius A. Markevicius (The Other Dream Team) is constantly reminding his audience that they are, in fact, watching a sad film, but he doesn’t seem to understand what makes this tale so somber, beyond the obvious oppression at its core. Even genuine atrocities fail to resonate in this hopelessly bleak World War II era snoozer.
It’s 1941, and while war is being waged across Europe, sixteen-year-old Lina (Bel Powley) has bigger fish to fry. She’s gearing up for art school, but her ambitions are thwarted when she and her family fall victim to the Soviet invasion of Lithuania and are shipped off to a Siberian prison camp. As prisoners shift into survival mode, even longstanding communal bonds are put to the test and the depths of necessity are placed on full display.
Clearly aiming to stir within its viewers the same tortured outrage and intolerable torment that provided films like Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with such unassailable gravitas, Ashes in the Snow expects its morose backdrop to do all of the heavy lifting. Without nuance or fervor, the script (penned by Ben York Jones, probably best remembered as performer and co-writer of Drake Doremus’s 2011 rom-dram Like Crazy) thoughtlessly recycles the trite formula of so many heartbreaking tales that have come before it, seemingly simply using the ‘find and replace’ function to swap out the specifics. Witnessing the horrors of the war – albeit through the lens of fictionalized accounts – reduced to a generic tearjerker becomes increasingly more cloying as the film plods along the familiar story beats of its limp 99-minute runtime.
Even the easy melodrama – the brink of starvation, the bitter cold, the abject cruelty of the captors – feels so painfully manufactured that it almost makes you forget that actual people were subjected to this inhuman level of sadism. There’s an emotional detachment that Markevicius almost invites with his lifeless direction. In a tale that is at once overexplained and undercooked, there’s almost no trace of recognizable humanity. So even when we are shown truly disturbing images, we are so far removed from them that they are stripped of any real emotive weight.
Aside from a couple of somewhat inspired performances (not the least of which from Ms. Powley) and a passable degree of period detail, Ashes in the Snow offers little more than the Wikipedia entry for the mass killings enacted under the Soviet regime. This joyless tale of survival and injustice feels far too empty to be affecting. In its journey from page to screen, what should have been a rousing testament to the resilience of the human spirit is instead distractingly dull. When all is said and done, we know almost nothing about Lina, or why her story is anything more than a gloomy fable.