This is one of those films one has to admire for what it’s attempting, even if it doesn’t quite succeed in achieving it. John Boyne’s book, intended especially for young readers, is a Holocaust fable from a child’s perspective—that of a German boy whose father is the commandant of a Nazi death camp, and who befriends a young Jewish prisoner across the fence of what he believes to be a strange-looking farm. And it has an ending that suggests that their crimes will ultimately be visited on the perpetrators.
It’s a risky business to try to translate this sort of narrative onto the screen. On the printed page, stylized language can mute the implausibility, but on film, that’s much more difficult. Working with production designer Martin Childs, Mark Herman (“Little Voice”) opts for a somewhat strange look, particularly in the appearance of the camp, which from the outside appears less threatening than the actual thing. And generally he and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme choose a gauzy look that gives everything a vaguely dreamlike quality that turns nightmarishly dark in the final horrifying sequence inside the camp.
But that approach isn’t taken very far; the locale still has an essentially realistic appearance. And that undermines the credibility of the scenes in which Bruno (Asa Butterfield) interacts with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), the Jewish boy whose striped prison uniform he takes to be pajamas. And it’s nearly fatal to the mechanics of the finale, in which we’re asked to believe that a young boy could actually dig his way under the fence into the camp so quickly and easily. (After all, one would assume the same operation could be accomplished in the other direction.) Unlike in a book, where tone and phrasing can mitigate the problems of believability, the very concrete character of what one sees on the screen is almost impossible to overcome, and Herman doesn’t manage to do so.
On the other hand, he does maintain a reserved, stately tone that keeps the film from descending into mawkishness. He also secures a very good performance from young Butterfield as the uncomprehending Bruno. The boy is absolutely central to the story, and if he had put a foot wrong, the result would have been disastrous. Happily Butterfield proves natural and unaffected, never lapsing into the cutesy quality that would have utterly doomed the picture. Scanlon has far less screen time, but he’s convincing despite looking rather too well-fed.
Their elders are more variable. David Thewlis is excellent at projecting a kind of mild-mannered efficiency that can be broken by sudden outbursts of emotion, but Vera Farmiga doesn’t quite find the key to his wife, admittedly an ambiguous character who’s difficult to unpack. Amber Beattie makes a curiously appealing figure of Gretel, Bruno’s older sister who gravitates toward Nazism under the influence of the children’s fanatical tutor (Jim Norton) and her father’s mechanically stern aide Lt. Kotler (Rupert Friend), who replaces movie stars in her romantic imagination. Sheila Hancock and Richard Johnson make solid impressions as Bruno’s paternal grandparents, she a critic of the fascists and he less candid about his opinions, and David Hayman carries himself with touching fragility as a camp prisoner who also fills the role of house servant for the commandant.
Ultimately, however, the deciding fact about “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is that while it elicits respect, the deeper emotions seem to elude it. Even at the end, when one should feel wrenching pain, simple sadness will be the likelier response. One can appreciate Herman’s effort to avoid becoming too cloying or manipulative, but he may have overcompensated.
Or perhaps Boyne’s book just represented an impossible challenge, and the difficulty of balancing realistic storytelling with fable and passion with reticence would have been beyond anyone’s capabilities. Herman’s film is a respectable effort, but in the final analysis one that’s more a work of intelligent, if sometimes problematic, craftsmanship than of overwhelming emotional power.