Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

Directed by Mark Herman
Written by John Boyne, from the novel by Mark Herman

In the middle of WWII, Bruno’s father, a soldier of the Third Reich, accepts a promotion.  The family leaves Berlin for his new post, and eight-year-old Bruno begins exploring immediately.  He soon discovers there is a settlement nearby, but his questions about the inhabitants are met with strange bans: the back garden is immediately forbidden him, and windows with views of the “farm” are boarded over.

All a child knows is what he’s told, and with jarring regularity, Bruno’s innocent questions are met with attempts to mould him according to Nazi doctrine.  His sister laps up the propaganda, while Bruno’s spirit of inquiry is attacked or circumvented.  He begins to doubt whether the adults really know what they’re talking about when he makes a new friend, a boy who wears striped pyjamas…

This lush production is beautifully photographed, and boasts excellent performances from the two young leads and David Thewlis, who as Bruno’s father turns from friendly, loving dad to repugnant, murdering fascist in the blink of an eye.  Lovingly made with meticulous attention to detail, it’s an interesting (and very British) attempt to show the way our minds are shaped in childhood.

Unfortunately, the film confuses its heavy message, relying on emotional manipulation and a dramatic, contrived ending, escalated by a deafening score to further ram home its significance.  The tumultuous events regrettably move the focus away from the most significant point of the film: that Bruno cannot understand the damaging adult ideas presented to him.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is slightly wide of the mark, but it’s still worth a watch.  Concentrate on the behaviour of the characters and the reasons why Bruno’s questions are so disturbing, and you’ll feel the full, chilling weight behind his friendly observation: “We’re not supposed to be friends, you and me.  We’re supposed to be enemies.”

This review was originally written for an online magazine, and is republished with permission. 

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