Director Mark Herman does a wonderful job with his visual adaptation of John Boyne's acclaimed young-adult novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which tells the story of a 1940s German youth who befriends a Jewish boy in a Nazi concentration camp.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) leads a privileged life with his German family in Berlin. Living in a palatial estate and having lots of friends, the 8-year-old and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) lack nothing. When Bruno’s father (David Thewlis), a soldier in the German forces, informs the children they are moving to the country, Bruno is devastated.
“But this is where my best friends live,” he whines.
That night a fancy celebration takes place at the family’s home. Hundreds of high-ranking German officials and their wives attend. So do Bruno’s grandparents, and it’s in their conversation with his father that Bruno begins to see him in a different light. While his grandfather (Richard Johnson) tells his son how proud he is of his rise in the German forces, Bruno’s grandmother (Sheila Hancock) spouts off some rhetoric Bruno doesn’t quiet understand. But he clearly senses his father’s anger when he demands she not speak about the subject again. In this scene, Herman (Little Voice) does a terrific job directing Bruno through the crowd. The wide-eyed boy glances up to uniformed men above him, taking in their ribbon-clustered jackets and listening to the talk about war. The camera follows his every facial expression and reveals that Bruno is no longer an innocent youth.
Once the family is moved into their cold county home devoid of any color or life, Bruno realizes he is totally alone. While his sister gets absorbed with her tutor’s Nazi propaganda teachings and moons over Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend), her father’s young assistant, Bruno becomes bored. While looking out his window one day, he spies a farm nearby where the workers wear striped pajamas. Pavel (David Hayman), one of them, works in their kitchen peeling potatoes. However, when Bruno questions his father about the farm, he’s told not to have anything to do with them because they are “not really people.”
By now Bruno’s beautiful mother (Vera Farmiga) has figured out they are only a mile or so from a prison camp and warns him not to venture out of the yard. But the yearning for a friend grows too great, and Bruno finds a way out of the yard and goes through the path to the camp. He arrives at a barbed wire fence where Shmuel, a young boy, sits in his striped pajamas. The boys are the same age, and Bruno is soon sneaking food to the starving kid. They play chess with rocks -- and for them, destiny is an undetected blip on their radar of friendship.
After Pavel is nearly beaten to death while serving the family dinner, and Bruno’s mother and father begin to quarrel violently every day, Bruno senses all is not right with his new world. He’s more determined than ever to spend every minute with Shmuel, a decision that will have devastating consequences.
This story is already a tear-jerker, but the superb acting makes it even more heartfelt. Thewlis is a compelling actor who often takes on unlikable characters, and in this film he’s truly despicable. The talented Farmiga (The Departed) has portrayed everything from strong women in Iron Jawed Angels to her role in this film as an endlessly poignant and obedient wife who can only handle the truth by divorcing herself from reality.
Herman felt strongly about both of his adult actors. “Vera captures the moral ambiguity and brings a very particular humanity and sympathy to the role of the commandant's wife who only gradually learns of the gas chambers,” he said. “I think that Vera and David lifted the film onto a different level than even I had expected.”
Asa Butterfield, a complete surprise in his first feature film, has acted in only a few television projects, but he will certainly be seen in many more films. As thedaughter of a military man, our family moved frequently, so I understand the pain of leaving one’s friends, and Butterfield appears to do so as well. He takes those feelings of isolation and parlays them into every action carried out by Bruno. This youngster is a pure delight to watch every minute throughout the film.
James Horner’s subtle but effective musical score and Benoit Delhomme’s wonderful cinematography carry out the movie’s intention to provide yet another perspective about the influence of prejudice, hatred and violence on innocent people, particularly children, during wartime. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not for children, but I recommend it highly for adults.
(Released by Miramax Films and rated “PG-13” for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.