Tackling the Holocaust warrants bravery and rendering such a tragedy into fiction for young audiences is a noble intention. Upon first glance, I assumed Waiting for Anya would possess the same brilliantly powerful flare as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not even the red velvet seats of the BFI plus a Q&A with director Ben Cookson and writer Michael Morpurgo following the film could change my mind.
The story is inspired by the French villagers of Lescun – which author Michael Morpurgo stumbled across on holiday in France. During World War Two, villagers helped Jewish children cross the border into Spain to protect them from the Nazis. A Jewish family look after these children, all the while waiting for their granddaughter, Anya, to return after being separated from them during the Holocaust. The retelling of Morpurgo’s story is clearly a priority in the film. Having been filmed in the very village where these events occurred means it is haunted by a silent yet poignant echo of the atrocities. For Morpurgo “This is a story that very much belongs to the people” – as such many of the extras used were villagers who were devoted to the spirit and hope of the place.
As Morpurgo cleverly notes, “You cannot forgive the Holocaust, but you can acknowledge its history”. Annoyingly, this message is conveyed patronisingly, even talking down to the primary school audience it is aimed at. This cinematic interpretation then loses the innocent flare that the book possesses. Moreover, the opening scene depicting the basic events of the Holocaust seems overdone and oversimplified. We’ve seen it all before.
Waiting for Anya follows Jo (Stranger Things’ Noah Schapp), a farm boy living in Lescun who helps with the smuggling of Jewish children across the border. Yes, he is the hero of the story; yes there are tense encounters with Nazi soldiers and yes, we witness the formation of an unconventional relationship between Jo and a Nazi corporal. Despite these devices, the film still fails to offer a dramatic spark. Many of the character arcs feel rushed and Jo isn’t intriguing enough to completely centre the story from his perspective. Morpurgo preempted this as he said “this is not an action film, it is about people and they are the root of the story”. Even the people of the story lacked credibility, with many plot lines feeling rushed and ineffective. This failure should not be attributed to the writing of the book, rather to the interpretation of the directors.
While I am aware that Review’s Molly Horner awarded Jojo Rabbit a shockingly atrocious 1-star rating, this film made me realise that we are in dire need for more filmmakers like Taika Waititi who adopt a refreshingly unique approach to war films. Waiting for Anya is not terrible – but I wouldn’t blame you if you don’t wait to see if she returns.