NO WORRIES: Bruno (Asa Butterfield) lives well with his mom (Vera Farmiga)… (David Lukacs / Associated…)
Writer-director Mark Herman took on tough material when he chose to adapt "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." The 2006 young adult novel by John Boyne cleaves to a young boy's point of view -- and the boy's unlikely friendship with a concentration camp inmate -- to construct an allegory about the Holocaust.
Having overheard grown-up conversations, the boy refers to Auschwitz as "Out-With" and the Fuehrer as "the Fury," devices that the film cannot depend upon. Translating this dark fable to the screen, Herman for the most part maintains the book's oversimplification of historical events, but he nonetheless crafts an affecting drama that refuses to soft-pedal its harrowing conclusion.
As the privileged 8-year-old protagonist, Asa Butterfield is innocent but never cutesy, self-centered but possessed of a restless, searching spirit. Bruno is not pleased about having to leave Berlin and "the best house ever" for an indefinite stay somewhere in the country.
The move has something to do with an important new assignment for his officer father (David Thewlis). Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) offers vague reassurances while, for the audience's sake, his grandmother provides disapproving glances and anti-Nazi murmurs. Unlikely period actors, Thewlis and Farmiga acquit themselves well with understated performances.
His family's temporary home has a cold, modernist geometry that doesn't invite exploration, and before long the bored Bruno has slipped into the forbidden backyard and out into the countryside. Herman and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme emphasize a child's sensory experience as the knob-kneed boy crosses woods thick with summer pollen to reach the mysterious "farm" he has spied from his bedroom window.
The story's trickiest conceit is its central one: the series of conversations Bruno has across the barbed-wire fence with 8-year-old Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a doppelganger who functions more as a morality lesson than a believable character. Scanlon fulfills this plot necessity with a suitably doleful gaze, but Shmuel's ability to wander alone to the edges of the camp is hard to buy. The film's two levels -- metaphoric and nitty-gritty -- don't mesh until the devastation of the closing sequence, which both indulges in and transcends melodrama.
On the home front, as Bruno tries to make sense of impossible truths and his mother increasingly is undone by them, the film is more convincing. (Still, viewers must get past the veddy Britishness of the German characters.) Bruno can't understand why the kindly Pavel (David Hayman), who wears the same striped "pajamas" as Shmuel, has chosen to peel potatoes in a corner of the kitchen when he used to be a doctor.
When Shmuel can barely begin to explain the facts of his existence, Bruno fills the void with a hopeful narrative based on his own pampered life. Bruno's naive interpretations, and Butterfield's engaging performance, deepen this simplified history lesson, which at its best explores the mysteries of childhood in collision with the unthinkable -- as when, in an apt horror image that carries a presaging jolt, Bruno stumbles upon his sister's discarded dolls, a tangled pile of castoff bodies in the cellar.
'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material involving the Holocaust
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 474-6291; and the ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-1465