2008 Certificate: 12


The seemingly inconceivable task of rendering the horrors of the Holocaust emotionally honestly to a young audience gets as close as it's going to get. In director Mark Herman's acutely balanced drama, the eight-year-old son of a Nazi camp kommandant forges an unlikely friendship with a Jewish boy prisoner on the other side of the electrified wire. Taut, spare and ultimately devastating, this sincere adaptation of John Boyne's novel is Disney's Schindler's List. And that's not a glib criticism.


  • Mark Herman


  • David Thewlis

  • Vera Farmiga

  • Rupert Friend

  • Richard Johnson


Sugaring the pill of the fate of six million Holocaust victims for the comprehension of a modern school age audience was always going to be tough call.

Even with John Boyne's bestselling source novel laying down the groundwork, it's one of those challenges that could easily buckle under the strain. Schindler's List managed it - but that was a film exclusively for grown-ups.

For younger audiences, the pure demonic bestiality of The Final Solution, the industrial slaughter of entire communities, could easily alienate, or worse terrify, rather than engage.

When it goes wrong it goes catastrophically wrong. The cloying wrong-headedness of Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Robin William's Jakob The Liar, as well-meaning as they were, left audiences with survivor's guilt for sticking with them to the final credits.

So it's good to report that Mark Herman, the director behind such emotionally satisfying dramas as Brassed Off and Little Voice, pretty much succeeds with his transformation of Boyne's story to the big screen.

Faced with the enormity of his subject, he sticks wisely with the story of two boys and a family. But this is no ordinary family. It's the well-heeled household of blindly Nazi fanatic and SS officer (Thewlis) who is given the job of running a concentration camp.

Dragged away from his chums in Berlin, his son, eight-year-old Bruno (Butterfield), escapes the boredom of his isolated new home by sneaking through the woods to what he thinks is a farm

Through the wire he spots Shmuel (Scanlon), a Jewish boy, his own age. Despite their very different situations, more unites than separates them, and they strike up a rapport.

It's Bruno's innocence of the undesirability of his new friendship that throws the all-consuming inhumanity of the Nazi regime into relief.

His dad is an unapologetic champion of the genocide, his sister embraces the Third Reich - first pigtails, then posters of the Hitler Youth - while his mother weepingly rebels when she realises what hubby is up to.

To adult audiences the dialogue may appear ponderous, but a script that hopes to illuminate the terrors of the Holocaust - the evil propaganda, dumb loyalty and clinical mass murder - has to spell things out.

Cleverly, the narrative also mirrors the ill-fated acquiescence with which many victims stumbled to the gas chambers, a terrible fate that Herman admirably does not shirk.

It's a noble, sincere undertaking that will see many leave the cinema with fresh insights. You can't really ask for much more than that.

Tim Evans