Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
The makers of the haunting Holocaust tragedy, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” are marketing it as a family film. The TV commercials are awash with glowing blue skies, sweeping music, and a kid-friendly sense of adventure. The posters – which feature those same skies, a glowing horizon, and a barbed-wire fence that, in context, manages to look friendly – are emblazoned with the insignia of the Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award, typically a green light for concerned parents. Well, moms and dads, I'm here to tell you not to be fooled by this profit-seeking trickery. While “Pajamas” does make for daring and provocative grown-up entertainment, if you bring your kids to see it, expect the month that follows to be filled with tough questions and sleepless nights.
The movie, based on John Boyne's best-seller, begins in Berlin during World War II and tells of Bruno, the curious, 8-year-old son of a high-ranking Nazi officer. When his father is reassigned to be the commandant at a remote concentration camp, Bruno – along with his mother and older sister – gets uprooted from his charmed life of school friends and social gatherings and relocates to a dreary military compound. Lonely and bored, he begins exploring his new surroundings and discovers the existence of a “farm” about a mile away where people – including children – work and wear “pajamas.” Against his mother's warnings, the intrepid Bruno ventures out to the site and befriends a boy his age who's detained behind an electrified fence. As the pair's meetings continue, they begin to form a bond that eventually crosses barriers both literally and figuratively.
That, or some variation of it, is what will end up on the back of the film's DVD packaging, along with the sentimental tagline, “Lines may divide us, but hope will unite us.” Allow me to illuminate how things really go down. From the moment the family's move gets underway, “Pajamas” begins to descend – inexorably condensing until it finally implodes on itself. This is not a criticism but an observation; in fact, the style of the narrative is extremely effective in centralizing the drama. We leave the bustling, radiant city and the family's posh urban dwelling for a gray fortress in the woods where only a few characters remain and, from which, even more will depart by the end. The film gives us subtle visual and aural cues to the bigger picture, like chimney smoke and warmongering, but it never expands to illuminate the devastation of the camp next door or the war at large. All of the film's major events play out within that one-mile radius.
This allows director Mark Herman (“Little Voice”), who also wrote the script, to confine the tension to this family's dynamics, which are also on a downward spiral. Perhaps the most interesting things about this movie are its rather novel perspectives of the Holocaust. There's Bruno, of course, whose innocence and naivete' allow him to initially think that the things he's discovered are part of an elaborate game. There's also the mother, a Nazi's wife who's quite naive herself and experiences a severe personal decline once she learns the truth about her husband's work. The sister is a fervent supporter of the party and the father/husband is a soulless machine – two types we've seen many times before in films about this topic. But the points-of-view of Bruno and the mother feel new and eye-opening and the actors who play these characters do so with remarkable believability.
The performances that Herman draws from young Asa Butterfield (Bruno) and Vera Farmiga (who's only credited as “the mother”) are superb. Butterfield, who previously starred in “Son of Rambow” and whose wide, ocean-blue eyes render him as the male clone of Saorsie Ronan from “Atonement,” has eagerness and charisma to burn and never hits the stifling snag of forced child acting. Farmiga, a brilliant actress who's best known in the mainstream for her supporting role in “The Departed” but more known to film buffs for her harrowing work in “Down to the Bone,” is flat-out riveting. She conveys all of the nuances of her conflicted character with simple glances. (Watch how she reacts when she finds her daughter plastering her bedroom with Nazi propaganda: incapable of condoning or condemning what she sees, she says nothing, but her face gives us all we need.)
Herman doesn't nurture the relationship between the two boys as much as he does the ones in the family, resulting in a diminished sense of attachment to the film's bellwether plot line. But “Pajamas” isn't really interested in appealing to our hearts; it's dead-set on rattling our nerves. I surely won't spoil the ending but I will say that, once we realize where this story is headed, the horror mounts like a gathering storm. “Pajamas” is a brutally righteous morality tale that sticks with you. It's the kind of movie you tell your friends to check out but at their own risk. That it's manipulatively disguised as an affair for the whole gang is its greatest weakness and bit of a sick joke. I'd normally say it's a good idea to inspire worldliness in a child as early as possible, but the Holocaust is heady stuff even for an adult, and “Pajamas” goes way beyond a simple post-film discussion. I know what you're thinking: "But it's clearly given a cautionary PG-13 rating." Yeah, well so was the last “Harry Potter” installment. I wouldn't recommend “Pajamas” be seen by anyone under 16. I'd highly recommend it to everyone else – at their own risk.