Based on the popular young adult book first published in 1990, director Ben Cookson brings Waiting for Anya from page to screen in an uneven film that struggles to decide on its target audience, and in doing so suffers greatly.
During the second world war, after been separated from his daughter Anja whilst fleeing from the rounding up of Jews, Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt, Angel Has Fallen and TV’s Supergirl) retreats to a small village in the Pyrenees to seek refuge with his mother in law at her secluded farm. At the same time young shepherd boy Jo (Noah Schnapp, Stranger Things), whose father was captured and held in a prisoner of war camp, goes about his life with his mother and siblings whilst being watched over by patriarch and well respected head of the village, Henri (Jean Reno, Leon: The Professional and Ronin) who is also Jo’s paternal grandfather. After shepherding the family’s flock, Jo is confronted by a bear and narrowly escapes, the bear is killed by Henri and Jo is lauded a hero. After Jo returns to find his lost dog, he crosses paths with Benjamin and he explains that the bear was only trying to protect its cub, telling Jo that it is their responsibility to look after it now. This scene early in the film acts as a ham-fisted metaphor for events later on and sets the benchmark for the wildly odd tone of the movie. Not long after, Germans begin to occupy and take control over the locals. All the while Benjamin and his mother in law, Horcada (Anjelica Huston, The Witches and The Addams Family) smuggle Jewish children across the border into unoccupied Spain. Jo and his family become involved and begin to help, as the German soldiers led by a menacing lieutenant, draw closer to discovering Benjamin and the hidden children.
The cinematography from the start is striking. Gerry Vasbenter (having cut his teeth as camera operator on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and HBO’s mega hit Game of Thrones) delivers a genuinely breath-taking aesthetic. Stunning autumnal mountain sides splashed with the sharpest greens and low cloud, and the seasonal changes so well realised you can almost smell the crisp air. Filmed with swooping long shots allowing for the drinking in of beautiful views. If only the rest of the movie was as enjoyable to watch.
Firstly, there is Schnapp at the heart of the film, who whilst endearing enough, gives a flat performance and with it a French accent that at times is passable but mostly just sounds like an American trying to sound as French as possible. Whilst Waiting for Anya is a far shout from the Stranger Things TV show, he still delivers a similar character, nervy and innocent, he shows signs of competent acting but never fails to look out of place and out of touch with the material and his co-stars. Jean Reno and Anjelica Huston on the other hand display all the qualities that you would expect from the veteran performers. They gel nicely together, and Reno especially enhances every scene he is in and leaves you wanting a flashback or two to enrich his stories of the previous war.
Tensions increase slowly as the group of potential rescuers build a growing collection of refugees and struggle to escort them to Spain. A standout scene sees a troop of soldiers close to discovering the children and is one of the movie’s most memorable. Stretching out the tension and demonstrating the real risks the protagonists face. It is a shame then that this is a lone plus point and other parts of the film accidentally veer into unintentional comedy. A scene where the children are sneaking though the village to avoid discovery was so Top Secret like in its execution, I half expected Val Kilmer to show up in a cameo. The movie never truly establishes its audience and in doing so ends up saccharine and over sentimental, yet the content and pace will have younger viewers fidgeting and losing interest entirely. The end result is a movie that will confuse younger viewers with little knowledge of events due to lack of exposition and slow narrative, older children and teens have access to more interesting and harder hitting movies and adults will struggle with the central performance and over sentimentality.
Pacing issues and odd tone aside however, the narrative does deliver a bittersweet and wholly satisfying ending that allows an air of forgiveness to help overcome previous missteps.
A confused movie that fails to deliver the emotional punch one would expect when touching on such devastatingly tragic historical events. This is very much a movie that benefited from its existence on the page and fared poorly in its translation onto the big screen. When there are movies of similar themes and of such stellar quality as The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas and Schindler’s List available, Waiting for Anya fails to offer a great deal to recommend it.
Directed by: Ben Cookson
Written by: Ben Cookson, Toby Torlesse
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Sadie Frost, Jean Reno, Anjelica Huston, Nicholas Rowe