Based on the book by John Boyne and set during the Second World War, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a careful and diligent film, that slowly builds up the story of two young children who quite literally live on either side on the fence. On the one side there’s Bruno, who is uprooted from the house he likes when his father gets a promotion. It turns out his father, played by David Thewlis, is a German officer who has just been made commandant of a concentration camp, that Bruno confuses as a farm. Along with his mother and sister too, they move to a new house, and it’s not too long before Bruno is off exploring.
He soon gets close to the fence of the camp, and he sees on the other side Leon, a boy of similar age to him. He confuses Leon’s clothing for pyjamas, when it’s instead the uniform of the prisoners, and the pair slowly strike up a friendship. Around this, Bruno’s sister, Greta, is gradually getting more and more influenced by the teachings of a visiting tutor, while his mother gets more and more disillusioned with the life that her husband surrounds himself with.
Written for the screen and directed by Mark Herman, previously responsible for the likes of Little Voice and Brassed Off!, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is a lean, efficient film, that gets its story told in 90 minutes with the bare minimum of fuss. It’s a wise approach, and the lack of narrative baggage keeps events gradually building up until the film arrives at its strong, but far from easy, final act. Herman also leaves no room for sentiment, and while this leaves his storytelling quite straightforward, personally I felt that served the material well.
There’s been criticism of the film, given that it’s viewed effectively through the eyes of 8-year-old Bruno, that it’s manipulative in its approach, and perhaps there’s the guts of an argument there. But still, Herman delivers a tight and powerful film.
He’s served well by a handful of key performances. The strong David Thewlis doesn’t get much to do, but Vera Farmiga as his wife is simply superb, and gives the best performance of the film. Asa Butterfield as Bruno too is very good, and you have little trouble buying his critical performance.
I haven’t, to date, read the book, although that’s something I’ll be addressing in due course, but a quick counsel of some friends and colleagues who have were split on whether the filmed or written version was stronger. What I can say is that the film isn’t perfect, but it’s still a strong piece of work. And credit too, incidentally, to James Horner’s score.
The extra features on the disc are headlined by a quite quiet commentary from Mark Herman and author John Boyne. It has a good number of silent spots throughout, but it’s not too bad, and interesting that the pair come together on the same track. There are also some deleted scenes, and a fairly run of the mill making of to round things off.
Inevitably, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas isn’t a film to all tastes, and Herman’s handling of the material has already divided opinions. But this is a quiet, focussed and moving film, and one that deserves to find a bigger audience on DVD.
The Film:The Disc:
The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is out now.