REVIEW: Waiting for Anya (2020)

Nobody really talks about children’s films. In fact, I would go so far as to claim it is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated form of popular cinema that there is. For one thing, it is difficult to persuade an adult audience to consider watching a film that is ostensibly made for children. For another, no child wants to watch films actually intended for a young audience – at least, not while they are constantly bombarded with advertising for more adult blockbusters.

Waiting for Anya is a 2020 children’s drama co-written and directed by Ben Cookson. It adapts Michael Morpurgo’s 1990 novel, which was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Both the novel and film are set in a French village in the Pyrenees mountain range in 1942. A young shepherd, Jo (Noah Schnapp) stumbles upon a Jewish man waiting in the forest for his daughter Anya. From there Jo is drawn into a secret mission to escort an entire group of Jewish children across the border to Spain – under the noses of the occupying German army. It is somewhat heavy material for a pre-teen audience, but in the case of Cookson’s film at least, it is well-told and appropriate for its youthful audience. It may not feature computer animation, superheroes, or starships, but it is an engaging story expressed with sensitivity and a child-friendly perspective.

So far, so good. Unfortunately Waiting for Anya is burdened with an interminably slow pace and a limited budget that makes it unexceptional at which to look and slightly dull to sit through. If broken up into six episodes for TV or streaming, it would be the sort of historical children’s drama that used to be commonplace – particularly on British television. As a self-contained feature, it sadly lends itself better to home viewing than a full theatrical experience. If any single element derails the film, it is its unavoidable ‘small screen’ appearance. This is a deep shame, because the hearts of Cookson and his crew are absolutely in the right place. The narrative and dialogue, while not profound by any stretch, are clear and enjoyable. The film successfully introduces the darker themes that a focus on the Holocaust inevitably brings, and it simultaneously renders the occupying Germans as distinct and varied personalities rather than the ‘lazy boogeymen’ as they are often presented. A key character in the film is an unnamed German Corporal, who appears more sympathetic and regretful than his fellow soldiers. He is played superbly by the German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who regularly makes a strong contribution to any film in which he appears.

Noah Schnapp, best known for playing Will in Netflix’s horror series Stranger Things, is a strong lead as Jo. Waiting For Anya really is partly redeemed by its cast, which includes Jean Reno, Anjelica Huston, and Frederick Schmidt. French-Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis makes a strong impact as the reigning Nazi Lieutenant, ominous and threatening without ever resorting to cartoonish villainy. His is a banal, uncomfortable sort of evil; when sending Jews to their deaths, he simply comments that he is doing his job.

In the cinemas it is unlikely that Waiting for Anya will make much of an impact. As a family-friendly diversion on a weekend afternoon, it is a reasonably well-developed picture. It is a shame that a more effective adaptation of the novel was not developed, but for the more patient 10-13 year-olds – particularly fans of the novel – it gets away with some merit.

Waiting for Anya is now screening in Australian cinemas.

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