In This World Movie Review
Told in his usual you-are-there style, with aggressive handheld cameras pursuing his subjects, Winterbottom keeps his story on the ground level, which is to say the human level. He hit his stride with his own brand of expressive naturalism with his Thomas Hardy adaptation, The Claim. One of the most prolific of modern filmmakers, Winterbottom brought joy to the world with his Manchester-based swirl of post-punk music in 24 Hour Party People.
Now Winterbottom's back to reactionary observation, only he does it with less polish and more tarnish than his previous, the flawed but bracing Welcome to Sarajevo. Now he's embraced digital technology, and even though his video images look like gritty filth most of the time, that's appropriate for a story set mostly in bombed out villages, the backs of pick-up trucks, desert wastelands, buses, and abusive border check-in stations.
Animated maps and large-lettered subtitles of each new country punctuate the movement of the two Pashtuns (16-year-old, English-speaking wiseguy Jamal, and soulful, distrustful grown-up Enayat), which places this movie in a global context (In This World, after all). Jamal and Enayat come from different customs, and skeptical viewers may groan at having to acclimate themselves to a National Geographic special about a third world country, but Winterbottom never treats it as "serious" (all the while treating their situation seriously). Jamal and Enayat listen to rock and roll, tell wildly imaginative jokes, and stand by each other from one grim (illegal) situation to the next.
In This World crosses cultural boundaries -- a tale of survival that is accessible because Winterbottom so protectively keeps his camera with Jamal and Enayat throughout every step of the way. Even the casual viewer will grow accustomed to them -- and identify with them out of necessity. Virtually every other character is unnamed, and as potentially distrustful as the rogues Pinocchio met along the way. And each new country seems to have its own disorienting rules. At one checkpoint, Winterbottom shoots in "night vision" photography, while a deadly snowstorm and an armed guard are lost in an electronic haze as Jamal and Enayat flee across dangerous mountain ground.
Running at a taut 88 minutes, In This World races the characters along their long and arduous road. At times, this brutal non-narrative travelogue seems to wander from its destination -- though it clearly builds to a harsh emotional peak at the climax. A pitch-black 40-hour freighter journey to France, lit only by flashlight, plays like one of Edgar Allan Poe's descents into madness. And a climactic, fleeting return to Afghanistan plays as a montage of children's faces looking into the camera, mostly smiling and mostly curious. This purely emotive moment of beauty, operatic in its glory, plays out against the harsh and uncompromising plight that has been the rest of In This World. Winterbottom serves up his angry message through clenched teeth, and then in a series of close-ups he manages to touch our hearts and souls. It defies you to remain unmoved.