© 2008 Ray Wong
Based on John Boyne's gripping novel, writer-director Mark Herman's adaptation of the Holocaust drama is a somber reflection on good, evil, and humanity through the eyes of a young boy.
Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is an imaginative 8-year-old son of the Nazi commander (David Thewlis) and his wife (Vera Farmiga). During the height of the WWII, he and his sister (Amber Beattie) move with their parents to the country outside of Berlin, after his father was promoted. Little does he know his father is now in charge of a concentration camp for the Jews.
Being a naive, innocent boy, Bruno doesn't understand what his father does -- to him, his father is a proud, dedicated soldier who is protecting their country, trying to make it the best place on Earth. His mother, however, knows better, and is promptly upset about what is going on around them. Bruno discovers a "farm" some distance from their new country house, and he meets a strange boy, also 8 years old, who wears pajamas all the time with a number on it. The boy's name is Schumel (Jack Scanlon) and they become fast friend.
Bruno doesn't understand why Schumel is hungry all the time, and why he is on the other side of a fence. In fact, Bruno doesn't understand a lot of things, such as why their Jewish servant, Pavel (David Hayman), stops being a doctor, or why Lieutenant Kotler (Rupert Friend) is so mean to the people wearing pajamas. As he grows attached to his new friend and begins to question the world around him, he realizes there's some secret he can never tell anyone.
As the protagonist, Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow) has a big responsibility on his shoulders. Wide-eyed and innocent, Butterfield is nicely cast as the naive boy who makes friends with "the enemy." Butterfield is very natural. Jack Scanlon (The Peter Serafinowicz Show) is perfect as Schmuel, the Jewish boy Bruno befriends. His portrayal is hard to watch, and Scanlon delivers a sensible performance with equal mix of sweetness, innocence, and vulnerability.
David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix) is excellent as the Nazi soldier. It's easy to hate his character, itself an example of the atrocity of the Nazis, but Thewlis gives the role a dimension -- yes, he's a dedicated soldier and loyalist, but he's also a doting father and a loving husband. He reminds us that, despite all the horror and inhumane things he does, his character is still human. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) is also excellent as Bruno's mother. As a wife caught between her husband's duty and her conscience, Farmiga portrays the woman with a sense of vulnerability, warmth and helplessness. There are moments when her character's actions could have made a difference, but she is simply a victim of her time and situation, and Farmiga does it so well that it's heartbreaking.
Rounding out the cast is Amber Beattie (Walking to Nairobi) as Bruno's impressionable sister, who does a good job without being obnoxious. Rupert Friend (Pride & Prejudice) is surprisingly charming as the cold-hearted Lieutenant Kotler. Finally, David Hayman (Flood) is exceptionally sympathetic as Jewish prisoner Pavel.
Mark Herman (Hope Springs) has written a streamlined, simplistic drama with a strong focus from Bruno's point of view. Herman rarely goes off on a tangent or veers far the boy. The audience, armed with their knowledge of history and observation, can get a bit testy with Bruno's naiveté and lack of understanding, especially toward the ending (if only Bruno would simply confide in his sympathetic mother). I think that's the hardest part of adapting a story from a point of view of an young child. Herman succeeds in revealing what we know about the horror of the Holocaust without relying on too much exposition or over-dramatization. At the same time, the illogical and irrational nature of the point of view could challenge our own comfort levels.
At times, the story drags and we wonder where the plot is going. Granted, it's not a complicated story, and much of its heart lies in the friendship between the two boys, and the consequences. Still, sometimes the story and characters can be frustrating, because often than not, they're passive, including Bruno's parents. We Americans are used to dramas where the main characters do something to get out of trouble, or at least try to change the course or the outcome. Here, the storytelling is more true to the European style: there's certain inevitability in the plot movement and character development that don't always culminate to a satisfactory resolution. Don't get me wrong, there is a climax, but it's not something you might imagine.
Dramatically solid, thematically humanistic, and tonally sad and depressive, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas boasts some fine acting, a straight plot, and a heart-wrenching conclusion that may be too intense and disturbing for any boy or girl to fathom.
Stars: Asa Butterfield, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Amber Beattie, Jack Scanlon, Rupert Friend, David Hayman
Director: Mark Herman
Writers: Mark Herman (based on John Boyne's novel)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 8 out of 10