Not Rated | 1h 49min | Drama, Thriller, War | 7 February 2020 (USA)
Often, World War II films depict the savagery of war and can be pretty blood-drenched affairs as combatants duke it out with rifles, planes, ships, and lots of bombs. However, once in a while that war comes into focus for filmmakers who take chances and roll the dice with lesser-known stories. “Waiting for Anya” is one such film.
Based on actual World War II events, British author, playwright, and poet Michael Morpurgo turned them into a children’s book. This film version was adapted for the screen by co-writers Ben Cookson and Toby Torlesse. Cookson also directed the movie.
The main narrative is centered around the humble residents of a small town in France called Lescun, not far from the beautiful vistas of the Pyrenees mountains.
Unfortunately, for the inhabitants, a detachment of Nazi soldiers has been tasked with occupying the idyllic village. Jo Lalande (Noah Schnapp, “Abe,” 2019) is a young shepherd and the film’s protagonist.
Early on in the film, Jo meets a Jewish fellow named Benjamin (Frederick Schmidt, 2019’s “Angel Has Fallen”), who tells a rather tragic story.
When the Germans initially began rounding up Jewish people from the cities, towns, and villages scattered across France, Benjamin spirited his daughter, the titular Anya, away. Both father and daughter had agreed to link back up in Lescun toward the end of the war, but Anya still hasn’t returned, hence the title of the movie.
Waiting for his daughter has been fraught with danger, since the German soldiers are constantly hunting down Jewish people.
In the meantime, Benjamin and a few townsfolk have been risking their lives to help Jews escape France and seek freedom in Spain. A good-hearted and relatively fearless youngster, Jo joins the small group and begins smuggling food out of one of the town’s markets and into the hands of hungry refugees.
Others within this brave group include an older widow named Horcada (Anjelica Huston), as well as grizzled World War I veteran Henri (Jean Reno).
When Jo’s family discovers that he’s been aiding the refugees and with the help of the local church, they unify in helping out whenever they can. Things become hair-raising when the Germans become suspicious that things in the small town might not entirely be as they appear.
The film is paced well and, under Cookson’s direction, gorgeous, with many shots of the rolling fields and dense woods of the southwestern edge of France. I really enjoyed how cinematographer Gerry Vasbenter took his time with his shots—actually filmed on location in the Pyrenees—and he successfully captured the sense of “magical storytelling” that the original author, Morpurgo, is known for.
The acting is likewise a joy to witness, with standout performances by cinema stalwarts Huston and Reno, as well as relative newcomer Schnapp. Through their depictions of the townsfolk, you really sense the palpable danger.
And because it’s based on a true story, you also sense how desperate these heroic figures must have been in real life.
“Waiting for Anya” is a well-put-together film that portrays a ragtag group of people who, through their selfless acts, are able to help those in need. Although melodramatic in spots, it offers an inspiring, good-hearted, and relatively family-friendly cinematic experience.
‘Waiting for Anya’
Director: Ben Cookson
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Jean Reno, Noah Schnapp
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 7, 2020
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5