Holocaust-themed films geared to younger audiences inevitably have a certain defanged quality. It’s the inevitable trade-off for softening the horrors attendant to the subject matter, and there’s something to be said for making the historical period more accessible to viewers who may not be familiar with it. Unfortunately, the approach can also result in blandness, which is the main problem afflicting Ben Cookson’s screen adaptation of British author Michael Morpurgo’s 1990 children’s book. Despite its laudable intentions, Waiting for Anya proves less impactful than it should be. The film certainly doesn’t have the thematic weight of War Horse, another film (and acclaimed stage play) based on a war-themed book by Morpurgo that was geared to young readers.
There’s certainly an arresting story at the pic’s center. Set in 1942 in the French Pyrenees, it concerns Jo (Noah Schnapp, displaying the same strong presence as he does in Netflix’s Stranger Things), a teenage shepherd who spends much of his time in the mountains attending to his grandfather Henri’s (Jean Reno) sheep. One day, after narrowly avoiding a possibly fatal encounter with a bear, Jo runs into the mysterious Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt). It turns out that Benjamin, a Jew, had escaped with his young daughter Anya from a train bound for a concentration camp, after which they were unfortunately separated. Now, he hides in the woods, helping to smuggle Jewish children to safety in Spain with the help of his elderly widowed mother-in-law Horcada (Angelica Huston) and desperately hoping to be reunited with Anya.
Although the area in southern France is technically not under Nazi occupation, there are many of them around and they are obviously up to no good. Or at least one of them isn’t, since we’re presented with one very bad Nazi in the form of a sneering, vicious lieutenant (Tomas Lemarquis) and one pretty good Nazi in the form of a kindly corporal (Thomas Kretschmann) who befriends Jo and talks longingly of returning home to his wife and daughters after the war. The contrast between the two men seems too simplistically drawn. Yes, there were some Nazis who were no doubt decent men, but you get the feeling here that the movie simply wanted to be fair and balanced.
Wanting to help Benjamin and Horcada in their noble efforts, Jo gets involved despite the dangers. His contribution consists largely of making trips to the village to procure groceries and medicine for the children being hidden in Horcada’s barn, and ironically is helped at one point by the corporal who offers to carry the heavy bag. Meanwhile, the lieutenant becomes increasingly suspicious of the villagers’ activities. The frequent presence of a mentally impaired classmate of Jo’s who antagonizes the Nazis only adds to the danger of the situation.
Director/co-screenwriter Cookson (Almost Married) proves unable to wrest much sustained tension from the scenario, indulging in too many subplots and minor characters and letting the pacing lag. Despite the fine efforts of the ensemble that includes such solid veterans as Huston (her accent, however, proves distracting), Reno and particularly Kretschmann, who brings real shadings to his role as the conflicted colonel, the film never overcomes its air of staidness.
Waiting for Anya boasts handsome visuals, with cinematographer Gerry Vasbenter wasting no opportunities to employ drones to capture the beauty of its setting (the pic was shot on location in the Pyrenees). But even that quality ironically works against it; the aerial shots of the mountain scenery look so gorgeous you keep waiting for Julie Andrews to appear, twirling and singing “The Sound of Music.” Presumably, that’s not the effect the filmmakers were hoping for.
Production companies: Goldfinch Studios, T&B Media Global, 13 Films, Artemis Production
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Anjelica Huston, Sadi Frost, Jean Reno, Nicolas Rowe, Thomas Kretschmann, Frederick Schmidt, Gilles Marini, Tomas Lemarquis, Elsa Zylberstein, Josephine de la Baume
Director: Ben Cookson
Screenwriters: Toby Torlesse, Ben Cookson
Producers: Alan Latham Phin Glynn
Executive producers: Kirsty Bell, Geoffrey Iles, Phil McKenzie, Tannaz Anisi, Gregory R. Schenz, Jwanwat Ahriyavraromp, Bhakbhume Tanta-Nanta, Ekkasitha Chalermrattawongz, Pornsuree Thienbunlertrat, Alastair Burlingham, Paul Ward, Raj Awasti
Director of photography: Gerry Vasbenter
Production designer: Laurence Brenguier
Editors: Chris Gill, Sandrine Deegan
Composer: James Seymour Brett
Costume designer: Agnes Noden
Casting: Shannon Makhanian