Adapted from John Boyne’s award-winning novel of the same name, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens with a quote that characterizes childhood as being a carefree period before “the dark hour of reason grows.” While generally true, there’s not much of that apple-cheeked optimism in this well-crafted World War II drama, told from a child’s-eye view. The quote, rather, serves as counterpoint for a prism through which prejudice, dehumanization and corrupted innocence are all assayed in quasi-fabulistic fashion.
The film unfolds through the eyes of eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield, above), son of Nazi commandant Ralf (David Thewlis) and Elsa (Vera Farmiga), a stay-at-home mother who embraces willful obliviousness with regards to her husband’s soldierly duties. Largely shielded from the realities of war, and certainly his father’s complicity in its grim prosecution, Bruno grumbles at having to move away from his friends and out to the country, where his family settles into a large house with a distant view of a commune-style barn where all the “farmers” wear strange pajamas. With no children with which to play, Bruno befriends a kitchen worker named Pavel (David Hayman), a pitiful, shuffling older man who in another life was a doctor.
After a week of hanging around the house, Bruno sneaks out through the back garden in search of adventure. He finally stumbles across Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a mousy Jewish boy at the nearby fence-ringed farm — which is of course plainly evident to the audience a concentration camp under Ralf’s newly expanded oversight — and a forbidden friendship develops between the pair. A visiting tutor hired by his father lectures him that all Jews are evil, and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie) eagerly drinks the nationalistic propagandistic Kool-Aid, but Bruno is conflicted. His bond with Shmuel is growing deeper, and senses are awakening that Bruno didn’t even know he had. How will this secret friendship play out?
Photographed by Benoit Delhomme (The Proposition), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas isn’t designed in as crushingly bleak a fashion as something like Lajos Koltai’s monochromatic Fateless, a fellow Holocaust tale told from the perspective of a young boy. With wide angles and uncluttered frames, screenwriter-director Mark Herman (Little Voice) aims for a more naturalistic palette, to underscore the movie’s humanistic tone.
What most helps the film, though, is the wide-eyed Butterfield. Physically resembling a cross between a young Elijah Wood and Son of Rambow‘s Bill Milner, he wonderfully captures Bruno’s naivete without ever tipping over into affected cuteness. The rest of the performances are nicely modulated as well. The pitfall of many World War II films is that they try to retell a grand story on a cramped canvas, but The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tells a discrete, moving, standalone tale from a specific point-of-view, and just tells it quite well. (Miramax, PG-13, 93 minutes)