From big budget special effects films like Roland Emmerich’s Midway (2019) to star vehicles like Tom Hanks in Aaron Schneider’s submarine drama, Greyhound (2020) or Paul Rudd in Ben Lewin’s thriller The Catcher Was a Spy (2018) or Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s espionage drama Red Joan (2018) or Benedict Cumberbatch in Dominic Cooke’s thriller The Courier (2020) or even Taika Waititi’s comic spin on Hitler; Jojo Rabbit (2019) – the prosecution of World War Two on screen continues unabated (you get the picture).
The latest story to be told is WAITING FOR ANYA, a second outing for writer/director Ben Cookson who adapts his screenplay (with co-writer Toby Torlesse) from the 1990 children’s book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo (and if that name seems familiar, you might have twigged that he’s also the author of Warhorse, which itself was adapted for Steven Spielberg’s 2011 World War One movie).
Here, it’s 1942 and Anya is a Jewish child who, as the film opens, is being herded by German soldiers into the familiar sight of a waiting train’s cattle-cars along with her father Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt) and hundreds of others all marked with a yellow star. In the confusion and panic, Benjamin (somewhat implausibly) manages to convince a passenger in a regular train on the adjacent track to take his daughter and then, himself, escapes.
Sometime later, in the small Pyrenees village of Lescun not far from France’s border with Spain we meet Jo (Noah Schnapp) a young shepherd who lives with his mother (Elsa Zylberstein) and his grandfather (Jean Reno). Jo’s father (Gilles Marini) is a soldier who’s been captured and held prisoner by the Germans. One day, in the woods, Jo encounters Benjamin who he soon discovers is hiding out with his mother, known locally as the Widow Horcada (Anjelica Houston). Benjamin tells Jo that he and his daughter Anya had an agreement that as soon as she could, she would meet him here at grandma’s place – hence the title of the film. But when Jo stumbles upon a small child, Leah (Enola Izquierdo Cicuendez) in the barn, he finds himself the keeper of Benjamin and the Widow’s secret – they are helping Jewish children escape across the mountains and into Spain. For Jo, keeping the secret becomes harder and riskier when the Germans post a garrison in the village to close off the possibility of such escapes. The garrison is led by a young, arrogant Lieutenant (Tomas Lemarquis) and his older, war-weary Corporal (Thomas Kretschmann). In order to protect both Benjamin and the children from being discovered, Jo becomes the go-between, ferrying food and supplies from the village to the Widow’s farm some distance away (strangely, no-one thinks to question the rather huge amount of food the Widow seems to consume each week). But his task is made more difficult when the Corporal takes an interest in birdwatching with Jo and his intellectually disabled friend Hubert (Declan Cole).
This is a complex and potentially compelling story with all the right elements to make its telling by a cast of excellent actors the likes of Huston, Reno and Schnapp both thrilling and poignant. Yet, somehow, the performances, the themes and the narrative never quite connect in a way that allows us to engage beyond the surface. The best scenes are those between Jo and the Corporal where the boy is able to understand that the nationality and the uniform of the man don’t automatically tar him with the same Nazi brush and that the two surrogate father figures in his life – Jewish Benjamin and the German Corporal – are not the stereotypes that their respective ‘sides’ choose to characterise each other. These scenes reach a level of emotion and authenticity that is sadly lacking in most of the rest of the film and Kretschmann in particular finds a depth of performance that sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Conversely, the scenes between Huston and Reno which you would hope might crackle (especially when there’s a bit of romance involved) are mostly flat and by the numbers.
Is it the writing? Is it the direction? Is it the source material? It’s probably a combination of all three but however that formula plays it, it makes for a plodding and unsubtle narrative where the characters are more likely to speak in obvious ways that should be subtext, rather than in more well crafted and subtle dialogue. For the audience, there is little need for reading between the lines – the lines tend to say exactly what each character is thinking or feeling.
This might also account for why there are very few surprises in this film; we see all the moments of intensity coming a mile off and can pretty much predict what key characters will do when their arcs hit their key moments. There is also the curiosity of choosing to deliver all the dialogue in accented English (with the exception of a few common key words – bonjour, tres bien etc for the French, nein, Schnell etc for the German). It’s just one more element that undermines the authenticity of the film. It’s a shame, because in surer more experienced hands it’s easy to see how this could have been a much more compelling and suspenseful film. In some ways it’s reminiscent of yet another recent World War Two film; last year’s Resistance (written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz) which also told a tale of French citizens attempting to confound the German invaders by smuggling children across the Alps, this time into Switzerland. (in that film, the focus is Marcel Marceau played by Jesse Eisenberg who fought with the Resistance before turning to mime) Both films have all the ingredients they need for much better outcomes, but both end up underdone. In the end, Waiting for Anya is interesting enough as a story and makes good use of some spectacular scenery nicely photographed by Gerry Vasbenter, but it travels very familiar roads in ways that offer nothing new to a trope that’s been presented to us again and again.
Sadly I admit that when I saw the name and poster of this film I did not know who Cousteau was. Sitting down to watch it, I was fascinated and ready to learn everything about him and why they spent time creating this documentary. As soon as I heard a British interviewer say, “Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau”, a lightbulb turned on.
Being a young child in the 90s when Cousteau passed away (1997), I had heard his name spoken frequently and remember his trademark red woollen cap and blue shirt. However, I never had the full experience of seeing his immense work of capturing the ocean on film, inventing diving equipment, and most importantly the environmental work during throughout his later years.
BECOMING COUSTEAU provides the audience with all the incredible visual footage of Cousteau’s experiences from early black and white film of free-diving and spearfishing in France to the early iteration of his invention the ‘Aqualung’. In such pristine condition, the footage shows in detail the highs and lows of the life he built on the sea with his family and crew. Giving the illusion of intimacy, many of the films he produced and footage he captured were all on his boat, the Calypso.
This sense of intimacy is in most part to his love for cinema, which he started filming alongside his brother at the age of 13. This lead to Cousteau directing 23 films and producing 45 films and television programs in his 87 years. Like the fascination of space travel, underwater exploration was just as exciting for young children of the 60s and 70s who followed Cousteau’s adventures – literally bringing the depths of the ocean to millions of people.
With the story's narration and interviews all recorded from moments in Cousteau’s life, this beautifully produced documentary lets the footage shine and shows the dedication to centring Cousteau as the hero of this story. While he is shown as an incredible man, his acceptance of his own flaws allows for the documentary to reveal the hardships he and his family went through mentally and physically; the early accident that led him to discover free-diving, the guilt he had for his work with oil companies in his youth and their treatment of the coral reefs, all lead to his tenacity to protect the oceans.
While BECOMING COUSTEAU will bring back the magic to people who grew up watching his films, in a way, the perfect audience of this documentary are children of the late 90s and beyond. Experiencing Jacques Cousteau’s incredible work, which is collated within this film feels as close as you could have to have seen it at the time of these films' release.
Becoming Cousteau is in selected cinemas now.
Annabelle Angel (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a big-city reporter venturing out into frontier territory to illuminate a way of life that’s foreign to her readers. Arriving in the titular outpost of Apache Junction, Arizona, Annabelle quickly learns that the town’s reputation as a safe haven for outlaws doesn’t paint the whole picture. The local army regiment led by Captain Hensley (Trace Adkins) - dispatched years ago to control the chaos - turns a blind eye to crime in exchange for profit, which has fomented a widespread apathy towards black and white morality in the face of people’s struggle to survive.
APACHE JUNCTION sees Lee experiment with the Revisionist Western subgenre, contrasting the more traditional, ‘good guy catches bad guys’ narrative of Badland with a slower and ensemble-driven approach. The other members of the main cast: local bar owner Al (Thomas Jane), prostitute Mary (Danielle Gross) and infamous outlaw Jericho Ford (Stuart Townsend), each provide a different perspective to the idea of hardship wearing one down; it’s difficult to follow the rules when they go against your own self-interest, and the people around you have given up anyway.
Overall, the film tends to tell without showing when it comes to this idea, but it shines in one early scene of Jericho and another man fighting in Al’s bar as a crowd watches and gambles. During my first viewing I found it jarring without knowing exactly why beyond there being no music and the tone feeling muddled. However, once the fight is over the viewer discovers that Al always fixes the outcome, and the pieces click into place: the whole sequence is designed to remind viewers of a raucous Wild West bar brawl but ultimately feel disingenuous. Similarly, when Jericho finds himself pursued by Captain Hensley, Al is quick to put his desire to stay alive ahead of his years of camaraderie with the former, not so much choosing a side as doing the bare minimum to acquiesce to each man.
It’s clear that Jericho, Mary and Al are intended to serve as foils for one another, with each being at different points on the scale between a classic Western hero and villain. Unfortunately, APACHE JUNCTION is simply too short to fully elaborate on this, I suspect since it also has to juggle Annabelle’s audience surrogate perspective. As mentioned above, the result is that details such as how Jericho’s oft-mentioned criminal past compares to the good deeds we see here are left frustratingly unclear, merely alluded to in conversation between characters. Using the Jericho example, have his motivations changed over time? I don’t know, but I would’ve liked to.
Nevertheless, APACHE JUNCTION’s cast make the most of the material, delivering consistently engaging performances on par with Badland’s memorable ensemble. Taylor-Compton is perfectly endearing as the fish out of water Annabelle, who always wants to believe the best in her new acquaintances despite her surroundings. Gross is pitch-perfect in some of the film’s most thoughtful (and pivotal) moments as she reveals Mary’s yearning for a new beginning. Townsend brings such a world-weariness to Jericho that it made me even more interested in learning about the character’s history. And finally, Adkins imbues Hensley with a deviousness that steals every one of his short scenes. Coupled with Lee’s admirable (if uneven) genre experimentation, these actors make APACHE JUNCTION an easy recommendation for any Western fan.