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.