Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, first published in 1990. Director Ben Cookson navigates the tightrope of bringing the horrors of the Holocaust to children’s drama. The result is a film that excels in performances and narrative complexity but at times lacks bite in its exploration of an occupied land where the Holocaust played out behind secret community bravery. This leaves Waiting for Anya with a curious yet compelling mix of children’s drama and historical insight that never matches the dramatic or emotional heights of films like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Jo (Noah Schnapp) is a young mountain Shepard who is continuing the Shepherding life of his father (Gilles Marini) in a small isolated French village in the Pyrenees. However, Jo’s father sits in a distant labour camp after fighting the march of fascism, and his mother struggles to maintain a family life. Meanwhile, his rebellious Grandfather (Jean Reno) continues to fight for freedom in his own secretive way. This leaves Jo in a void of existence, one where he feels a duty to be the man of the house while at the same time remaining a mere child.
However, despite these challenges, Jo’s life is generally free from the horror and ravages of war. But how long can this remain, as the war in Europe continues to escalate? When Jo meets a mysterious stranger named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jewish man in hiding, his entry into the war and the fight for freedom and human rights finally arrives. But is this boy ready to face the true horror of war? And can Jo make a difference in saving the lives of a people hidden in plain sight?
READ MORE: AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS
As the distance between the Holocaust and modern life grows, the importance of exploring our darkest history becomes even more vital in filmmaking. Therefore, Waiting for Anya is to be commended for delivering us a true story that enables children to reflect upon and ask questions about European history and the Holocaust. However, while Waiting for Anya had the potential to echo the complexity of Au Revoir Les Enfants, it never manages to match Malle’s exquisite interface between forced occupation, Holocaust and community rebellion.
Waiting for Anya struggles to find the right mix of darkness and light in its delivery, often opting for a soft-focus lens to events unravelling. This gentle approach is matched by a score that obliterates the film’s quiet moments of contemplation. Here Waiting for Anya falls foul of the assumption that movies aimed at children need to soften the emotion and darkness of war. However, while this may dilute the emotional impact and soften the blow, it also treats kids with kid-gloves. The medium of film can enable a far more structured dialogue with children; look at Empire of the Sun and The Book Thief, both of which never shy away from the emotional pain and turmoil of conflict.
However, Waiting for Anya excels in several areas, including its performances and historical accuracy. Equally there is also much to admire in the screenplay from Toby Torlesse, a young screenwriter who has translated Morpurgo’s book with a genuine reverence for the writer’s work. The result is a movie that sings with sincerity and care, even when its dramatic impact falters.
Director: Ben Cookson
Waiting For Anya is showing in UK cinemas from 21st February