Producers: Alan Latham and Phin Glynn Director: Ben Cookson Screenplay: Toby Torlesse and Ben Cookson Stars: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Jean Reno, Frederick Schmidt, Elsa Zylberstein, Gilles Marini, Thomas Kretschmann, Tómas Lemarquis, Joséphine De La Baume, Sadie Frost, Declan Cole, Urs Rechn, Nicholas Rowe, Lucas Sauer, Enola Izquierdo Cicuedez, Mathys Gallet-Lartigue and William Abadie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Another in the increasingly crowded line of films following the template of “Schindler’s List”—the most recent was “Quezon’s Game”—Ben Cookson’s adaptation of a 1990 children’s book by the prolific Michael Morpurgo (“War Horse”) is based on a historical reality—that during World War II villagers in the French Pyrenees helped smuggle Jews across the border into Spain, where they could avoid seizure by Nazis or their Vichy collaborators. That serves as background to a coming-of-age tale about Jo (Noah Schnapp), a teen in a family of shepherds in the village who becomes involved in the rescue of Jewish children under the very eyes of a squadron of German guards sent to patrol the escape routes.
Jo lives with his mother (Elsa Zylberstein) and grandfather (Jean Reno); his father (Gilles Marini) is a POW in a German camp. While watching the family’s flock one day, he’s confronted by a bear foraging for food, and leaves the sheep to warn the townsmen, who kill the animal. Concerned that the bear’s cub will not survive, Jo returns to the forest, where he encounters a stranger, Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt), who carries off the cub. Intrigued, Jo follows the man to the house of reclusive widow Horcada (Anjelica Huston), and discovers that he’s her son-in-law, and the two are harboring Jewish children whom they hope to lead across the border to safety. He becomes involved in their operation, as does his grandfather, an old friend of Horcada, along with Jo’s father when he returns from captivity.
Benjamin has a special reason for his obsession to help the youngsters. As shown in a prologue, he had escaped transport to the camps with his little daughter Anya, but in the process had lost contact with her. It’s his hope that she will find her way to him and they will be reunited and go to Spain together.
Meanwhile the villagers must contend with the squadron of German soldiers in their midst. They’re led by a lieutenant (Tómas Lemarquis) who has a vampire-like look about him and has a sadistic air; but a corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) is deeply conflicted about their mission, befriending Jo and even overlooking evidence of the presence of the Jewish children.
Various of the other villagers will be involved in a final effort to get the children over the border, including the town priest (William Abadie). But the one whose presence is most notable is Jo’s closest friend Hubert (Declan Cole), a mentally challenged boy whose habit of provoking the Germans will end badly.
Like many other films of this type, “Waiting for Anya” is earnest and heartfelt, and it joins Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (2008) in presenting the Holocaust from the perspective of a young protagonist who gradually comes to understand the horror of it; like that film, it’s therefore especially appropriate for adolescent viewers. But as directed by Cookson and edited by Chris Gill and Sandrine Deegen, it is deliberately paced and too often goes slack, failing to generate the tension that would make it compelling. A lack of energy is also a facet of Schnapp’s performance; he makes Jo a rather bland, passive figure, and Schmidt is not much better as Benjamin. On the other hand, Huston and Reno add plenty of vitality, and Lemarquis certainly makes an odious villain. Kretschmann is a sad-faced counterpoint to him, and Cole adds a note of poignancy as Hubert, even if the character is not particularly well developed.
Shot on location by Gerry Vasbenter, the film is visually quite beautiful, thanks to the magnificent vistas and mountains. But the craft work from production designer Laurence Brenguier and costumer Agnès Noden is also excellent, and James Seymour Brett’s attractive score is a plus.
There’s no mistaking the good intentions behind “Waiting for Anya,” and one can see the makers’ commitment in every frame. But perhaps because of the young target audience, it only rarely captures the desperation of the time with the genuine power it deserves.