Writing holocaust-themed novels for the young adult market is a tricky proposition. Adapting them for the big screen is even trickier. Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas did a better job of it than the 2008 film generally gets credit for, because it gets pretty darned honest and tragic down the stretch. The challenges are even more apparent for this big screen treatment set amid the picturesque Pyrenees, blessed with excellent grazing land for sheep and conveniently located a stone’s throw away from Spain. A teenaged shepherd does his best to aid and comfort a small group of hidden Jewish children in Ben Cookson’s adaptation of Michael “War Horse” Morpurgo’s YA novel, Waiting for Anya, which opens today in Brooklyn.
Jo is a better shepherd than a student, but he still flees in panic at the sight of a bear. He is a little defensive when he discovers a mysterious stranger witnessed the full incident, but he quickly understands the man has more to lose than he does. Benjamin is in fact a Jew who escaped the transports, who made his way to his widowed mother-in-law Horcada’s mountain farm, hoping his missing daughter Anya will also make her way to their agreed rendezvous point. The not-knowing is killing him, but he is still determined to help the half dozen or so children who have also found refuge with Horcada.
After meeting one of the little urchins, Jo agrees to shuttle supplies from town to Horcada’s remote farm house. However, he remains rather confused by the situation. The National Socialists stationed in town, with Vichy’s blessing, seem like agreeably rugged outdoorsy types to him, especially “The Corporal,” who seems to have misgivings over the way his colleagues have prosecuted the war. Grieving his daughter lost during an air raid, the NCO tries to take Jo under his wing. He also has unexpected affection for a developmentally challenged village boy, whose knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time will become a major source of tension throughout the film.
Waiting for Anya is a well-intentioned film, but everyone in it looks way too healthy, even the hidden children. Unlike the devastating confrontation with reality Striped Pajamas builds towards, Cookson manages to avoid any graphic depictions of atrocities. In fact, there is only one incident of violence for evil’s sake that viewers have already been primed to expect, with an annoying sense of tragic inevitability.
Noah Schnapp is competent enough as Jo, even though his delicate features do not make him look like much of a sheep-driver. Thomas Kretschmann wouldn’t hardly work at all if it weren’t for the National Socialists, like a 21st Century Maximilian Schell, but playing the Corporal gives him a chance to show subtlety and ambiguity of character that he rarely has a chance to display. He definitely does the best work of anyone in this picture. Of course, Jean Reno fun to watch chewing the scenery as Jo’s grouchy Free-French-supporting Grandpa, but Anjelica is weirdly bland as the Widow Horcada.