Michael Winterbottom belongs to a shrinking fraternity of filmmakers driven more by the desire for an interesting life than for a linear career path. Since making the leap from BBC television drama to moviemaking — the British director’s rite of passage — Winterbottom has racked up an oeuvre as uneven as that of compatriots like Mike Figgis and Stephen Frears. The worthily conventional dramas that put him on the map in this country have been his weakest — Go Now, a manipulative television movie starring Robert Carlyle as a man trying to stare down multiple sclerosis; the acclaimed but dispiritingly square Thomas Hardy adaptation Jude; and the impeccably liberal but plodding refugee drama Welcome to Sarajevo. In between he’s made some wildly inventive movies without in any way losing his human touch. His second Hardy adaptation, The Claim, was a gorgeous, wrenching transposition of The Mayor of Casterbridge to the American West during the gold rush; Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People were both cheekily dissident portraits of urban English life.

Now comes In This World, a film that carried off no less than three prizes (including a Golden Bear) at Berlin this year, and in which the director has at last found a way to hitch his compassion to a compellingly original style. Like Welcome to Sarajevo, In This World takes up the cudgels on behalf of asylum seekers, but it’s less ingratiating, less easy on the eye; instead, Winterbottom takes the principles of documentary filmmaking and boldly applies them to a fictional, yet entirely topical, scenario. Inspired by the scandal that erupted after the discovery of 58 dead Chinese illegal immigrants in a shipping container in England in June 2000, In This World tells the story of two Afghan cousins who, under the dubious wing of a chain of smugglers, trek overland from a refugee camp in Pakistan to London, where relatives await them. The movie has a horrifying sequence alluding to the Chinese deaths, but mostly it is an extraordinarily intimate evocation of just how helpless it feels to be a refugee.

Where others might throw in a few locals to show they’ve gone native, Winterbottom made his film entirely with non-pro actors improvising from rough guidelines created by screenwriter Tony Grisoni. Either Winterbottom and his editor, Peter Christelis, have brought off a miracle of canny splicing or some natural fellow feeling grew spontaneously between the two leads, who were plucked from, respectively, a market stall and an English-language school in Peshawar. Enayat (Enayatullah Juymaudin) is a gentle, cautious type despite his imposing hatchet face, and more fearful than his charming younger cousin Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi), a scrappy, grandstanding street urchin who speaks enough English to extricate the pair from potentially disastrous encounters along the way.

Shot with available light in aptly rough digital video, In This World tracks the two as they try to navigate the magisterially unforgiving desert and hilly terrain that takes them through Iran, Turkey and Italy to the Sangatte detention center near the Channel Tunnel. A heart-stopping escape from armed soldiers through the snow-covered mountains in Kurdish Iran is shot by cinematographer Marcel Zyskind with the kind of blurry expressionism you’d expect from a former cameraman for Lars von Trier, yet the movie is artful without calling attention to its technique. At times it ambles along, borrowing from the meditative rhythms of Iranian film as it dwells on the pedestrian details that define even the most precarious lives — fleeting moments of careless happiness like a pickup football game or a meal with hospitable strangers, long hours of waiting for a contact to show up. Then we’re rushed pell-mell into frenetic activity as crisis follows seemingly insurmountable crisis. The movie’s staccato pacing, lent emphasis by Dario Marianelli’s haunting score, evokes the cycles of tedium and terror that make the journey so unnerving. Winterbottom places us inside the cousins’ vulnerability — their dependence on the corruptibility of officials, the integrity of smugglers and the kindness of people they’ve never met — and their dogged persistence against unspeakable odds.

In This World stakes no explicit political claims, but as it closes we learn something about the fate of one of the cousins (and, in an eerie instance of life imitating art, the actor who plays him) that goes right to the heart of the debate over asylum seekers. The world is full of refugees, and Western countries that have helped create them (as well as those that haven’t) must deal with the fact that to reject them is inhuman, to accept them by the millions is impractical, and to create humanly decent criteria for who qualifies and who doesn’t is all but impossible. That is the West’s dilemma. It is Enayat and Jamal’s tragedy.

IN THIS WORLD | Directed by MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM Written by TONY GRISONI | Produced by ANDREW EATON and ANITA OVERLAND | Released by Sundance Film Series | At Loews Cineplex Odeon Beverly Center

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