The kind of big-budget period piece that’s rarely made these days, The Children of Huang Shi plays like a movie that could have been made in the 1950s or ’60s. The film is beautiful, well-acted and thoroughly absorbing. If it doesn’t get your heart pounding with the thrill of cinematic discovery, that’s OK—old-style craftsmanship like this is a heartwarming curio in this day and age.

Based on the true story of British journalist George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, excellent), the movie begins in 1937 with our intrepid reporter taking pictures of the Japanese rape of Nanking. Caught by members of Japan’s military, Hogg is about to be executed when he is rescued by members of a Communist partisan group led by Chen Hansheng (Chow Yun-Fat, movie-star bigger than life). Fearing for Hogg’s safety, Chen sends him to a faraway province, where he winds up at a school for war orphans presided over by Australian nurse Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell, gritty and game).

Stuck in a place he doesn’t want to be, with 60 male orphans he can’t understand and who don’t particularly like him, Hogg decides to make the best of things. He gets the kids involved in sanitation measures, sprucing up the place, even erecting a basketball hoop so they can learn a new game. After a few months he’s completely won them over, and the orphanage is humming smoothly.

But the Sino-Japanese War keeps coming closer day by day. Aware of the danger, Hogg and Pearson decide to lead their charges on a 700-mile journey across the mountains to safety in a remote village near the Mongolian border. After the inevitable run-ins with bombs, Japanese patrols and local warlords, the group manages to reach their destination, only to be confronted by a final, heartbreaking tragedy.

Epic and intimate at the same time, director Roger Spottiswoode’s film moves smoothly over historical terrain that is probably unfamiliar to most viewers. No matter. The screenplay by Jane Hawksley and James MacManus sets up all the various situations with economy, and Zhao Xiaoding’s luminous photography makes beautiful use of China’s magnificent vistas. More importantly, in Jonathan Rhys Meyers, The Children of Huang Shi has lucked into an actor who seems to be taking off as a leading man. Once a little too fey for roles like this, Rhys Meyers, now 30, has matured and filled out. He’s become a strong presence, and captures Hogg’s spunk and never-say-die attitude perfectly.

All that said, The Children of Huang Shi is probably a little too old-fashioned to attract today’s mainstream audiences. But for those who admire a solid story told with craft and professionalism, this is a film they will never regret seeing.