An important message, impotently delivered in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas"
The message of the movie "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is an important one: Children and adults alike should know of the horrors of the Holocaust, and never forget. This very unsubtle movie's heart is in the right place; its art, unfortunately, isn't, says movie critic Moira Macdonald.
Seattle Times movie critic
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," with Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Amber Beattie, David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga. Written and directed by Mark Herman, from the novel by John Boyne. 93 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust. Harvard Exit.
Mark Herman's Holocaust drama "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" occupies an odd, awkward middle ground: It's too manipulative and sentimental to work as a film for adults, yet its subject matter made visual may well be too overwhelming for children. Based on John Boyne's novel, it's about a little boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) whose Nazi father moves the family into a house adjacent to a death camp. A lonely child, Bruno wanders far enough to find a barbed-wire fence and a boy his age, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), on the other side of it — thin, ashen-pale and wearing what Bruno thinks are striped pajamas. A wary friendship is formed, with tragic consequences.
The film is beautifully acted: Vera Farmiga is touching as Bruno's tight-lipped mother, who seems not entirely sure what's happening on the other side of that fence; David Thewlis is chilling as the father who explains to his children that Jews are "not really people at all"; and young Butterfield, a quiet and natural actor, is perfectly believable as the kind of boy who sits sadly playing checkers with himself. Benoit Delhomme's cinematography is artful, caught in sepia-toned nostalgic light.
So, why did I find "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" nearly unbearable to sit through? Because the movie, drenched in James Horner's soupy score, talks down to its audience, telling us what to think at every moment. We're supposed to be moved by Bruno's naive attempts to befriend Shmuel, and believe him to be a better person than the rest of his family. His father is given scary red-faced close-ups to underscore his monster role; his smug preteen sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), who undergoes an instant personality change during the movie, calls the Jews "evil, dangerous vermin."
But Bruno's acting not out of altruism but from a desire for someone to play with, and he's actually pretty rotten to Shmuel in the beginning of their friendship. (Poor, angelic Shmuel forgives him, of course.) None of the characters — except perhaps the mother, but that seems more due to Farmiga's performance than the script — is given any dimension or nuance, other than being bad or good. And the way this film gives more weight to Bruno's loneliness than Shmuel's plight feels terribly out-of-balance and trivializing, until its final wrenching moments.
The message of "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is an important one: Children and adults alike should know of the horrors of the Holocaust, and never forget. This very unsubtle movie's heart is in the right place; its art, unfortunately, isn't.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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