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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas
Released on Friday, Sep 12 2008

Director: Mark Herman
Screenwriter: Mark Herman
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Vera Farmiga, David Thewlis, Rupert Friend
Running time: 94 mins
Certificate: 12A

Upon completing Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg admitted that he was embarrassed by his cartoonish portrayal of Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies. In a post-Schindler's Hollywood, Mark Herman's The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas takes zero sympathy or flippant tone with the implementers of the Final Solution, instead attempting to explore the depths to which man is capable of plunging and the consequences it can have on those sucked into extremist ideology.

Based on John Boyne's best-selling novel, Boy concerns Bruno (Butterfield), an eight-year-old German boy living in 1940s Berlin. When his father (Thewlis), a Nazi commandant, is relocated to Heidelberg, Bruno and family uproot to the countryside. Friendless and more captivated by adventure novels than the history books his home-school teacher pushes onto him and his sister (she is more receptive), he uncovers a concentration camp near his garden and befriends young Jewish boy Shmuel through its barbed wire fence.

An award-courting drama, Boy is calculated and false, lacking a natural ebb and flow that immerses the viewer and sweeps them along on a genuinely satisfying journey. Instead, it grinds to its downbeat conclusion with tacky heartstring mechanisations, complete with swelling score at every emotional turning point and pelting rain and thunder predictably making an entrance in the grim finale. Boy is courageous in its ambitions but carries an uneasy undercurrent of exploiting the lowest point in human history to chase Oscar votes. However, the film is at least worth commending for highlighting the reality of the Holocaust to an audience more attuned to the fantasy escapism of Harry Potter and Narnia.

Logic is casually dispensed with in order to execute the story, most evident in Bruno's intelligence (he's too dim to figure out that something awful might be happening in the camp) and Shmuel's belief that his elderly relatives weren't murdered by German soliders, but instead died of natural causes. The two leads create chemistry in spite of this, with the feral Scanlon particularly impressive in his limited screen time. Their friendship drives at ideas of naivety and ignorance - its benefits and pitfalls - in the young, and the thin thread on which innocence hangs.

Thewlis's Nazi is a man of stark contrast and flimsy characterisation; on one hand he's a devoted husband and father, on the other a monster simmering with hate and prejudice. Farmiga's wife/mother - equally as deluded as her son - seems present only to show off the costume designer's grasp of Third Reich fashion and to out-scream Angelina Jolie's A Mighty Heart performance in her two breakdown scenes. Two other supporting characters, Bruno's grandmother (Sheila Hancock) and the fierce young Lieutenant Kotler (Friend), are shipped out of the story far too quickly. One is a Nazi dissident, the other has a parent deemed a traitor for fleeing the country - both could have added more dynamism and conflict to the film.

Boy is visually lush and has a fastidious attention to period detail, yet it still can't escape the trappings of a stilted Sunday teatime TV drama. It pushes awkwardly and abruptly from gentle airiness into dark territory, trying to fool you with an ending that's cynically designed as a button-pushing, melodramatic tearjerker. A film dealing with the Holocaust really should be a little less clumsily executed, manipulative and contrived than this.


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