Synopsis: During the harrows of WWII, Jo, a young shepherd along with the help of the Widow Horcada, helps to smuggle Jewish children across the border from southern France into Spain.
Stars: Anjelica Huston, Jean Reno, Frederick Schmidt, Thomas Kretschmann, Noah Schnapp, Gilles Marini, Elsa Zylberstein, Nicholas Rowe, Tómas Lemarquis, Sadie Frost
Director: Ben Cookson
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: As a child, I remember reading countless numbers of books assigned by teachers and picked up randomly from the library about children living in the Alps (Swiss, French, etc.) doing brave things. They climbed mountains, they survived in the wilderness, they went toe-to-toe with grumpy grandfathers, and they often stood up to authority in the face of great danger. As I grew older, I began to see that a number of these novels were really about life during the second World War with Nazis being cast as the Big Bad that our child heroes and heroines were pitted against. To me, it was just kids triumphing over mean adults…
Somehow in the midst of my massive amount of reading I missed Michael Morpurgo 1990 book Waiting for Anya. Looking at its hand painted cover and reading it’s rousing description it seems like something that was right up my alley and a title I would have checked out promptly. Though he has become more well known for his 1982 novel War Horse (which inspired the stage show that led to the Steven Spielberg movie), this is another of his works that is often read in schools and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a minor history lesson wrapped in a relatively safe story; it stays squarely in its lane and prefers not to veer off course even though its talented cast is surely up for the challenge.
A prologue scroll acclimates us to the fragile time of war we are entering at the start of the picture. Jews are being loaded onto trains to an unknown destination and a man named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt, Angel Has Fallen) is attempting to avoid boarding with his young daughter, Anya. Flash forward to the village of Lescun where we meet Jo, (Noah Schnapp, The Peanuts Movie) a shepherd that has a chance encounter with a more grizzled Benjamin while tending to his flock. Following Benjamin back to his lodging with the Widow Horcada (Anjelica Huston, The Witches) Jo soon comes to realize that her farm is being used to transport young Jews into the safety of Spain. Trusting Jo with this knowledge, Horcada and Benjamin bring the boy into their fold which increases the danger not just for the three of them but for Jo’s family and the rest of their tiny village.
There’s an unfortunate sameness that settles over the film early on and it never can truly shake it. Perhaps it’s just that Morpurgo’s story isn’t that original and, while an important piece of history, has been told before with a bit more conviction through better means. This adaptation from Toby Torlesse and director Ben Cookson feels like a, sorry to say it, paint-by-numbers approach to a Nazi WWII drama with all of the standard complications and tensions throughout. There’s the gruff father (Gilles Marini) that doesn’t understand why his son is affiliated with a fringe-dweller like Benjamin, the conflicted Nazi general (Thomas Kretschmann, Avengers: Age of Ultron) who the screenplay tries to make more three dimensional, and a smarmy Nazi lieutenant (Tómas Lemarquis, X-Men: Apocalypse) with eyes that get bigger the stronger his German accent gets. That being said, Huston and Jean Reno (Alex Cross) as Jo’s grandfather inject their characters with a bit of oomph, even if all the actors involved tend to come off as overly earnest.
Look, I’m never going to begrudge a movie (or book) like Waiting for Anya to exist. If it opens the door for a dialogue between parents/teachers and their children/students into this period of history than I say more power to them. From a production standpoint, the film is obviously operating on a smaller budget but it has some lovely picturesque vistas so it’s mostly a well-made affair. It’s when it falls prey to the run-of-the-mill machinations of its genre that the movie becomes markedly less effective. Recommended on the strength of the performances.