Director: Mark Herman
Cast: David Thewlis, Vera Farmiga, Rupert Friend, Asa Butterfield, Jack Scalon
RunTime: 1 hr 35 mins
Released By: BVI
Official Website: http://www.boyinthestripedpajamas.com/
Opening Day: 26 February 2009 (exclusively at The Cathay & Cineleisure)
Eight year-old Bruno is the sheltered son of a Nazi officer whose promotion takes the family from their comfortable home in Berlin to a desolate area where the lonely boy finds nothing to do and no-one to play with. Crushed by boredom and compelled by curiosity, Bruno ignores his mother’s repeated instructions not to explore the back garden and heads for the ‘farm’ he has seen in the near distance. There he meets Shmuel, a boy his own age who lives a parallel, alien existence on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Bruno's encounter with the boy in the striped pyjamas leads him from innocence to a dawning awareness of the adult world around them as his meetings with Shmuel develop into a friendship with devastating consequences.
Countless tales have told of the horrors of the Holocaust but Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”- based on the children’s novel by John Boyne- offers a unique perspective that packs such a powerful punch it will stun you right in your seat.
Seen through the eyes of a bright, spirited 8-year old German boy Bruno (Asa Butterfield), it tells of an unlikely friendship between Bruno, the son of a high-ranking soldier father (David Thewlis), and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy Bruno’s age wearing what Bruno thinks are pyjamas. At first, Bruno thinks that Shmuel’s the son of farmers living behind barbed wire, or that the numbers on Shmuel’s pyjamas are part of a game.
However, it isn’t long before Bruno learns that Shmuel is a Jew in a concentration camp just behind his new house, at which point he takes to Shmuel more cautiously- no thanks to his personal tutor (Ivan Verebely) telling him essentially that all Jews are evil. But Bruno finds only companionship and no hint of evil in Shmuel and their friendship begins to deepen. I will not ruin the ending for you- but just to warn you that when it finally sneaks up on you, it has enough impact to floor you.
That it manages to be both deeply compelling and poignant at the same time is Mark Herman’s greatest accomplishment (who both adapted and directed the movie for the big screen). He keeps the story tightly focused on Bruno, faithfully rendering the tale told as a first-person account in the book.
So precise does it keep its sight on Bruno that you feel emphatically Bruno’s sadness as he leaves his friends in the city and moves to the countryside, or the earnestness in his friendship with his one and only companion Shmuel, and possibly most dramatically, his disillusionment when told Shmuel’s part of a race of malevolent people.
Yes, in the innocence of childhood, Mark Herman has brought vividly and acutely to light the lies and evil that grown-ups- no less Bruno’s father- perpetuates. He smartly lets Bruno become a lens to magnify the hideousness of war that we may have grown accustomed and perhaps immune to. Indeed, this intimate movie may not feel as epic as say Schindler’s List, but the perspective it has chosen to take and which it offers us to share is one that is just as haunting and moving.
The excellent cast also boost the strong storytelling of this gripping tale. As the privileged child coming into a realization of evil, Asa Butterfield conveys his character’s varied emotions intensely through his expressive eyes. Indeed, it is a riveting performance that you won’t be able to take your eyes off. Also a revelation here is Vera Farmiga in arguably her best performance so far. Her portrayal of Bruno’s mother- the other moral centre of the film- is heartbreaking to watch as her character grows increasingly disillusioned with her husband’s callousness.
Just as deserving a mention is James Horner’s wonderfully evocative score. Unlike some of his previous movies (for example, House of Sand and Fog), there is none of the histrionics here that threatens to drown the movie in melodrama. Instead, his mellow use of piano and string tunes helps elicit the mood so aptly throughout the movie, making this an even more moving journey.
“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” thus becomes a simple tale of innocence lost and humanity found. And in its simplicity lies both its beauty and its strength. At a time where morals and values are often so conveniently tossed aside in favour of the ends we desperately want to attain, this story is also a timely and an ever relevant reminder of the voice of conscience that needs to be heard from the child within each and every one of us.
(Told with harrowing simplicity and powerful restraint, this is one Holocaust tale that belongs right up there with the classics of all time)
Review by Gabriel Chong