Games of “Duck, Duck, Goose” are really tough to pull off in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
The only thing worse than a movie with a surprise “twist” ending is having to sit through the movie knowing one is coming. Twist endings turn movies into used crossword puzzles, but if you don’t see them coming beforehand, at least you’re not aware you’re working on the puzzle. Honestly, I’m a little angry with this newspaper for mentioning a twist ending in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in the weekly synopses. Dude, why would you tell me that? How was I supposed to concentrate when in the back of my mind the whole time, rattling like a fat moth in a lampshade, was this unwelcome awareness that my hopes in this quietly snowballing drama would be thwarted?
If you read an actual review before going to see a movie, yeah, you’re taking a risk. But also making a choice. I’ve heard people complain over the years that I give away key plot points in my reviews (many more have complained that I didn’t even mention the movie), but I try not to ruin anything for anybody. Anyway, you can see there’s a difference between a little critical leakage in the appropriate forum and the senseless thought crime of giving the ending away in freaking Movie Shorts. When I invoice for this review next month, I’m hitting them with a $3 surcharge for fouling my movieshed. (Editor’s note: Good luck with that.)
The thing is, if the course of events had been allowed to unfold naturally, I probably wouldn’t have looked at the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as a twist ending at all. Unexpected, maybe, but not abrupt or unearned or ludicrous or completely out of nowhere, and in any event certainly handled well. So make that a $6.75 surcharge for the Independent, the full matinee price, for giving away a perfectly decent ending.
The movie itself is likewise perfectly decent, one of those nice BBC historical dramas with high standards but not lofty aspirations, and certainly no pretensions to righteous grandstanding. David Thewlis—always a welcome face—plays the Nazi officer recently promoted to prison camp commander, Vera Farmiga his wife, newcomer Asa Butterfield their eight-year-old son, Bruno. At the start of the movie, Thewlis uproots the family from its sprawling Berlin home and moves Bruno, his mother and sister to a dark, depressing villa just across the fence from what Bruno thinks is a farm, albeit a farm with strange farmers, shuffling around in identical pajamas.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is, of course, a story about lost innocence and harsh awakenings to the adult world. To put you in the proper frame of mind, at the very beginning of the movie there’s a John Betjeman quote about childhood perception. Bruno, like all children, is constantly building models of the universe based on observations of grown-ups. As viewers, we know the whole story with the striped pajamas and the smoke-belching chimneys; even the grownup characters become children as we strain to imagine a real-time awakening of the Holocaust in progress and all its guilty implications, not to mention the intense private horror of waking up, at eight years of age, to the truth that one’s father is a mass murderer. Though the movie doesn’t develop it, there’s also a simultaneous strain of sexual awakening as Bruno watches his 12-year-old sister grow closer to the family’s personal SS chauffeur. Meaty stuff, then—a great tangle of rude awakenings.
The child actors in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas do fine, particularly Butterfield as Bruno. He’s no Dakota Fanning: He underplays Bruno nicely, naturally, like an actual kid. But innocence comes easy to kids. The key performance in the movie is Vera Farmiga’s as Bruno’s mother. Director/screenwriter Mark Herman is careful to balance the racist pedantry of Liszt, the children’s tutor, and proclamations about duty by their officer father with more liberal opinions from their grandmother. But as Bruno’s mother, Farmiga is his chief looking glass and moral barometer, and the creators of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas could not have chosen a more sensitive instrument for the task— Farmiga is wonderful. Thewlis is also coldly effective as the Nazi family man, though it’s also true his only job is to remain cool and aloof, distracted by his job. The chauffeur comes across as more of a stock Nazi character, but the war-criminal-as-loving-dad aspect of Thewlis’s character is problematic and therefore more interesting.
Which brings us to our ending again. The movie is adapted from John Boyne’s novel of the same name—the European release is spelled like the book, with “Pyjamas”—so you can only fault it so far regardless of how you feel about the ending. I didn’t feel let down or unsatisfied, or that it affected the movie’s rewatchability, its potential as a source of repeated pleasure, which is what it ultimately comes down to for me, which is what twist endings usually ruin for me. Some other ending might have offered more hope, perhaps sprinkled the ending with a bit of Holocaust magical realism or simply hijacked it with some inane deus ex machina, but it was suitably bleak and not sanctimonious or too self-consciously clever, which is good enough for me. I give The Boy in the Striped Pajamas high marks all around. I’m still going to ask for my money back.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas concludes its run at the Carmike 10 Thursday, Dec. 4.