BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS, THE
Eight year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the sheltered son of a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) whose promotion takes the family from their comfortable home in Berlin to a desolate area where the lonely boy finds nothing to do and no-one to play with. Crushed by boredom and compelled by curiosity, Bruno ignores his mother's (Vera Farmiga) repeated instructions not to explore the back garden and heads for the 'farm' he has seen in the near distance. There he meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age who lives a parallel, alien existence on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Bruno's encounter with the boy in the striped pyjamas leads him from innocence to a dawning awareness of the adult world around them as his meetings with Shmuel develop into a friendship with devastating consequences.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Valkyrie (released here Jan 22, 2009), The Reader (Feb 19, 2009), Good (April 9, 2009), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (April 23, 2009), Defiance (April 30, 2009) ... these five movies releasing in the first four months of 2009, are all set in and around World War II. Apart from that obvious fact, what they also have in common is that all the German characters speak English, albeit in various styles and accents. This is perhaps unavoidable for films wishing to find commercial sized audiences in the English speaking world (and we generally accept the convention for the sake of convenience), but some do it better than others. I was critical of Valkyrie for the almost laughable casting of actors steeped in Englishness like Eddie Izzard, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas goes even further down this path, completely adopting English speech and culture mannerisms for its German characters, notably David Thewlis as the concentration camp Commandant. Asa Butterfield as his son Bruno, despite his blue eyes (but Adolf-black hair) and the lovely Vera Farmiga as his wife (horrified when she learns the real reason for the smoke from those chimneys) fare only fractionally better. As for young Jack Scanlon as the 8 year old Jewish prisoner, Shmuel, the poor boy's round face defies all attempts at looking gaunt and drawn. Rupert Friend is allowed to overact in his nastiness as Lt Kotler, and Jim Norton's as the tutor, Herr Liszt, is straight out of English prep school.
But this style problem is the surface symbol of a deeper malaise: it's riddled with fake notes that jar, from clunky dialogue to caricature Germans (in English bodies). The film tells an unlikely story of how an 8 year old's innocence comes into conflict with the horrors of the Holocaust, and in the novel, we can imagine the characters speaking German, being German and behaving German, even if the dialogue is written in English. In the movie, the English culture is carried aloft in the way the characters speak - and there is nothing about David Thewlis that could inspire the imagination to portray him as an SS officer.
The story is passable, albeit a little too manufactured for my taste in terms of its moral lessons, but the execution is so stilted and unconvincing that the experience is uncomfortable. Yorkshireman Mark Herman was more comfortable with his earlier films, like Purely Belter, Little Voice and Brassed Off, films distinctly English in culture. This time, I just didn't believe.
Review by Louise Keller:
I have a confession to make. Before I saw this film, I wondered whether I would be able to get beyond the Englishness of the production of what is a specifically German story. I was especially critical of this issue in the recently released Good and the upcoming Defiance, but I need not have worried. The power of this story and the way director Mark Herman tells it through the innocent eyes of an eight year old boy overcome all the hurdles with its child-like simplicity that clutches our hearts. Set on a backdrop of Nazi Germany, this is a gut-wrenching adaptation of John Boyne's novel about the loss of innocence when friendship and conflicted morals swirl like black smoke billowing in the sky.
When the film begins, we see what life is like for eight year old Bruno (Asa Butterfield). Kids will be kids, even in war-time Berlin, playing make-believe in the streets with his friends. 'Think of it as an adventure; like one of your books,' his father David Thewlis tells him, when told of the family's imminent move to the countryside. Herman accentuates the film's point of view when we see Bruno's bright-blue saucer eyes peering inquisitively through the blinds of his top floor bedroom. He dreams of being an explorer, but the reality of life following his SS Officer father's 'history in the making' promotion to Auschwitz, is boredom and loneliness. This is what leads him to the bottom of the forbidden garden where he finds Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), an unlikely pyjama-clad playmate behind an electric wire fence. Bruno starts to understand the inexplicable from simple exchanges like 'What have you done?'; 'I'm a Jew'.
All the relationships are devastating in their complexity. There's conflict between Thewlis' hard-line SS Officer and his soft-hearted, naďve wife (Vera Farmiga), when she realises the implications of the obnoxious smells and smoke from the tall chimneys. Besotted by the handsome SS Officer Karl (Henry Kingsmill) and influenced by the tutor who dishes out political propaganda, Amber Beattie's Gretel changes from a doll-loving 12 year old into a brain-washed patriot. Bruno is tugged in all directions as his friendship with Shmuel develops, the relationship with his father falters and he finally takes his fate into his own hands as he decides to embark on a secret mission. The entire cast is excellent and Butterfield is a natural. I also especially warmed to Farmiga as the disillusioned wife. The themes are explosive as is the emotional impact of this ultimately heartbreaking film in which innocence cannot stand a chance.
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BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS, THE (M)
CAST: Vera Formiga, David Thewlis, Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Zac Mattoon O'Brien, Domonkos Németh, Zsuzsa Holl, László Áron, Sheila Hancock, Richard Johnson, Béla Fesztbaum, Iván Verebély
PRODUCER: David Heyman
DIRECTOR: Mark Herman
SCRIPT: Mark Herman (novel by John Boyne)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Benoit Delhomme
EDITOR: Michael Ellis
MUSIC: James Horner
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Martin Childs
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Walt Disney
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 23, 2009