Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, first published in 1990. Director Ben Cookson navigates the tightrope of bringing holocaust drama to children’s orientated filmmaking. While embracing the challenge of filming entirely on location. With the French mountain village at the centre of Morpurgo’s book, providing an important backdrop to the narrative. Creating a film that excels in both visual style and complexity. While at times lacking in bite and danger in its exploration of an occupied land, holocaust and community bravery. Leaving Waiting for Anya with a curious yet compelling mix of children’s drama and historical insight. While never quite reaching the dramatic or emotional heights of films like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
At the centre of the story sits young Shepard Jo (Noah Schnapp), a delicate and empathetic teenage boy. Who continues the Shepherding life of his father (Gilles Marini) in a small isolated French village in the Pyrenees. However, Jo’s father is absent from his life, sitting in a distant labour camp after fighting in the war effort to save France from the march of fascism. While his mother struggles to maintain a normal family life. And his rebellious Grandfather (Jean Reno) continues to fight for freedom in his own secretive way.
Jo’s life is generally free from the horror and ravages of war. His secluded community routine continuing as normal despite the march of horror across Europe. However, this all changes on escaping the claws of a bear trying to protect her cub in the woods. Leading Jo to a mysterious meeting with a stranger named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), a Jewish man in hiding. A man who escaped from forced transportation to a concentration camp. While also ensuring his young daughter (Anya) found freedom in the arms of a woman on a public train. His agreement with his daughter that they would meet again on the boarder with Spain as soon as she was able to travel.
The meeting sparks Jo’s interest and curiosity as he explores his own ignorance of the events surrounding him. His journey into the realities of adulthood interfacing with the protective walls of his childhood. A dynamic handled beautifully by Noah Schnapp, as a reflects the no mans land between childhood innocence and adult awakening.
As Jo’s need for answers intensifies, he traces the mysterious Benjamin to the home of Horcada (Anjelica Huston). A farming widow living on the edge of the village, who is not only protecting Benjamin. But also groups Jewish children whose only hopes come from a secretive and dangerous crossing from France to Spain. And as the community finds itself a home to a small band of Nazi soldiers, Jo finds his calling in helping to ensure lives are saved at all costs.
As the distance between the events of the Holocaust and modern life grows. The importance of reflecting our shared world history become even more vital in filmmaking. Especially within children’s drama, where history is often sidelined in favour of fantasy and science fiction. Therefore, Waiting for Anya fills an important role. Both ensuring children can reflect on and ask questions about one the darkest periods of European history. While also enabling them to reflect on the bravery of those communities and individuals who continued to defy hatred. And its here where Waiting for Anya had the potential to echo the narrative style and complexity of Au Revior Les Enfants. However, it never manages to match the nuanced interface between forced occupation, holocaust and coming of age, achieved so brilliantly by the Louis Malle classic.
The tightrope walk for filmmakers in reflecting the brutality and horror of war in children’s films, ultimately becomes one of the biggest flaws in Waiting for Anya. As it struggles to find the right mix of darkness and light in delivery. Often providing a soft focus lens to events, when it could have afforded a more dramatic and direct approach. And this is equally matched by a score that often rides rough shot over emotion. The need for moments of silence and reflection drowned out by a commanding orchestral score that feels disconnected from the films location.
There is often an assumption that films aimed at children need to soften the emotion and darkness of war. And as a result, many films shield a young audience from the true horrors of a wartime childhood experience. However, by allowing for a more nuanced reflection, that embodies the fear and loss of innocence inherent in war. Film’s can enable a far more structured dialogue with children. For example neither Empire of the Sun nor The Book Thief shy away from emotional pain and turmoil of conflict. While equally allowing access to younger audiences.
However, despite these problems, Waiting for Anya also excels in several areas. With performances full of love and admiration for the historical basis of the film. And direction that understands the importance of reflecting the bravery of those who stood up to fascism. Including the nuanced emotions of many German soldiers, who struggled to navigate the job they were commanded to do. While also exploring the multiple victims of Hitlers Holocaust through the story of Hubert (Declan Cole). Highlighting the risk posed to those with disabilities who sat under the protection of small communities invaded by fascism.
Equally there is also much to admire in the screenplay Toby Torlesse. A young screen writer who has translated Morpurgo’s book to screen with a true reverence for the writers work. Just as its young director Ben Cookson has bravely ensured the film reflects the community and people at its heart. Thus ensuring Waiting for Anya sings with sincerity and love, even when its dramatic impact falters.
Director: Ben Cookson
Waiting For Anya is showing in UK cinemas from 21st February