There’s something particularly peculiar about the adaptation of this particular novel. A children’s book with very adult themes, the story is told from the perspective of the narrator, an 8 year old boy who moves to Auschwitz with his family including his Nazi superior officer father, but without understanding the reasons behind the move, nor exactly what it is that his father does there. The story is revealed to the reader at the same pace as the lead character, and therein lies the problem. Not only has The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas been translated into 34 languages around the world, and remained in the Irish Bestseller’s List for over a year, the film has to take a different slant towards the story. Telling a story from a perspective is one thing, but showing it is something else entirely.
The film does take a fair amount of time to get going, especially considering its rather meagre running time of 94 minutes, but once it arrives at its destination, the sense of foreboding ratchets up constantly. As Bruno, the inquisitive boy always looking for adventune, Asa Butterfield delivers a performance that can be placed among the ranks of the Fanning’s and the Joel Osmand’s of the world; kids with scarily too much talent for their age. But even surpassing him is Jack Scanlon as Schmuel, aka The Boy, who’s expressions rarely fail to be set to either confused depression and rampant fear. The image of Bruno, son of the Soldier in charge of one of the Auschwitz concentration camps, trying to play a game with Schmuel, who doesn’t understand why he’s being treated so badly beyond knowing that its because he’s Jewish, across a barb-wired electrified fence is striking, and just one of the many images that will remain in your memory long after the film is over.
Outside of the children, the adults all step their game up. David Thewlis plays the German soldier/father with suiting subtlety, being impossibly creepy as a loving father all the while knowing exactly what his happening in his back garden. Vera Farmiga outdoes herself as the mother of the family, trying to keep a loving household together in the midst of such a violent atmosphere. And Rupert Friend is absolutely terrifying as a rage-fuelled soldier with a possible murky past of his own.
Director Mark Herman knows how to play down a situation and let the story speak for itself, and has proven himself fully capable of such in the past with small hits like Little Voice and Brassed Off, but here he seems overtly aware of the story’s power and where it is all inevitably heading, and underplays the entire thing to such a degree that for the most part it seems like nothing is ever going to happen. But lurking beneath all the scenes of emotional ambiguity and personality revolutions, there is a constant sense of dread, and while we may not know for sure, but we all know that this can not end well. The climax still retains the same power that the book had, perhaps even more so thanks to a fantastic score by James Horner.
But in the end, the movie will leave with the feeling that while very competently made and well acted, it was a 5 minute climax that merely required a 90 minute build up. Everything that had gone before was secondary to how it was going to end. In this case, where we got was the most important part, not how we got there.
Seven Out Of Ten