Sep 05 2008
John Boyne‘s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, was a sensation when first published in 2006. It spent 66 weeks at the top of the Irish Book Charts and, while written by a man from Dublin, it has been a success globally, reaching the New York Times bestsellers list.
It is not surprising then that there should be some trepidation from fans of the book over Brassed Off and Little Voice‘s direct Mark Herman‘s adaptation to film. There was understandable concern that he may brush over certain more unpleasant aspect of the novel, or worst of all that he might give it a ‘Hollywood ending’.
Last night, At the World Premiere in Dublin’s Savoy Cinema, all trepidation was laid to rest and a classic movie was born.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells the story of 8 year old Bruno, son of the Commandant of a concentration camp during World War II, and how he befriends an incarcerated Jewish boy named Schmuel. Bruno has had to leave his home and friends in Berlin to live with his family in what is essentially an army barracks. Through boredom he goes exploring where he shouldn’t and meets Schmuel at the fence of the camp. Behind the barbed wire, Bruno’s innocent eyes sees Schmuel in his striped clothes with a number on it (which he believes is part of a game) and wishes he too could play with friends all day in the camp, instead of being bored alone in the house.
Without his parents’ knowledge, Bruno develops a strong bond with the boy in the striped pyjamas, even though he learns from his family and his Nazi tutor, Herr Liszt, that they should not be friends. As the story of friendship unfolds, Bruno’s initially happy family unit begins to unravel. The Commandant, played by Harry Potter’s David Thewlis, does not seem like a bad man at first. He is merely a good soldier following orders dutifully. Through his wife, however, we learn that he is deeply entwined in Hitler’s Holocaust. His wife, played superbly by Vera Farmiga, gives an Oscar worthy peformance as she tries to come to terms with what her husband has been doing to the Jews. Her final scenes in the film are nothing short of heartbreaking.
But it is the two boys, Bruno and Schmuel, played by Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon respectively, who carry the film. The shattering of Bruno’s innocence and his belief in his father’s goodness is played out perfectly by Butterfield, as he searches for answers. At the same time, the expressions of incredulity and then resignation on the face of Scanlon’s Schmuel show that the two boys are separated by far more than a barbed wire fence. Their lives are utterly opposite and it is this stark difference between the two boy’s lives that makes the climax of the movie all the more poignant.
Despite my positive review, I have a hesitation in recommending this movie. It’s tough going. Even for those who may not have read the book, the finale seems to present itself a good 20 minutes before the end of the film. It is harrowing to know the inevitable fate of the boys and being unable to stop it. The far too believable performances are what makes this film so brilliant, but equally so difficult to watch. As the credits rolled and silence descended upon the Savoy, the only sound that could be heard was the sobbing of men and women. My chest was knotted at the end. It is not a pleasant feeling. This film will stay with me. There is a part of me that wishes I hadn’t seen it for the simple fact that there are some things that I am happy not to think about. The individual lives of the Holocaust victims is frightening to ponder and this film forces the point by being so believable.
It truly is an instant classic. It will be watched time and time again for years to come. The actors were remarkable, the direction flawless and the music was painfully wonderful when accompanied with some of the movie’s more startling moments. With your tissue in hand, do see this movie. It will make you emote, it will change your perception and it will stay with you for a long time.