Waiting for Anya is based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, who also wrote War Horse (which Steven Spielberg adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 2011). As a novel and a film, Anya moves with the cadence and focus of a chapter book, imparting teachable lessons to young readers who might pick it up in a school library.
Jo (Noah Schnapp) is a French boy living under Nazi occupation during World War II. He becomes aware that local townsfolk are hiding Jewish refugees and helping them escape across the border to Spain. One of his townsfolk is Horcada (Anjelica Huston), a mysterious old lady. Like many stories of its kind, Anya doesn’t cut corners on the tragedy. This isn’t a white-washing of the Holocaust. It leans into the senseless tragedy.
There are definite signs of the film’s low budget here, including numerous instances where the backdrop shudders due to shoddy green-screen work. The inclusion of Thomas Kretschmann as a more sympathetic Nazi character (at least as far as such things go) is a little strange but brings a recognizable face to the proceedings. Ditto for Jean Reno as Henri, another town local involved in Jo’s ultimately plot to save refugees by sneaking them amid flocks of sheep.
Comparisons could be made to Jojo Rabbit, the Academy Award-nominated story of a child learning about Nazism amid the backdrop of World War II that has created a stir in film circles. I gave Jojo a high review and think that film did a miraculous job of using magical realism to create a nuanced portrait of how ideologies take hold in normal people. The off-the-wall imagination and unique approach — showing an indoctrinated boy learning the lies rather than a free-thinking boy resisting them — feels at home in our times.
Anya isn’t the same type of movie by any stretch. It’s a grounded story with straightforward goals in mind: The Holocaust was awful, and everyday heroes did their part to alleviate the bloodshed. Whether this feels overly simplistic — most of the Nazis are comically cruel and evil — is hard to say. It’s a lesson that never loses luster even if it feels like those heroes are fewer and farther between. Nothing here is new: It’s like the primer for eventually showing your child Schindler’s List or another prestige Holocaust drama — a film with honest intentions that’s adequately done.