PBS'S 'THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK'

BBC offers a more realistic adaptation of 'The Diary of Anne Frank'

Anne, Frankly: Ellie Kendrick stars in a new British movie that portrays the diarist as herself, not the voice of millions.
Anne, Frankly: Ellie Kendrick stars in a new British movie that portrays the diarist as herself, not the voice of millions. (Darlow Smithson Productions)

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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

It's easy to get Anne Frank wrong. Her memory has lived on in a way that surpasses some of history's eternal names, and her story has been put to many purposes, most of them focused on lessons of the Holocaust.

That sometimes makes it hard to comprehend the actual teenager behind the martyred icon. Tourists go to the claustrophobically small attic in Amsterdam (now a museum) by the thousands each year, touching the walls, hoping to connect somehow.

Unfortunately, when it came to adapting "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" to the stage (in 1955) and to the movie screen (in 1959), we failed. Both were written and performed in ways that now seem almost bizarrely trite and glossy, if not creepy and inaccurate. Hollywood and Broadway's "The Diary of Anne Frank" -- as seen for decades on English-class movie projectors and VCRs, or as portrayed by the drama club -- did wonders for book sales but mushed up the story for mainstream, postwar American tastes. Thus, a cheerfully precocious girl is optimistically marched off to the death camps, hoping only the best for the world; in some ways, all the early adaptations of "The Diary of Anne Frank" lacked were show tunes.

Later attempts (Melissa Gilbert played her in a TV movie in 1980; Natalie Portman played her in a Broadway revival in 1997) tried to restore the essence and mystery of the diary in a more complicated emotional field, where it belongs.

Finally, on PBS Sunday night (on what happens to be Holocaust Remembrance Day), an absorbing and smartly simple British adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" has done what all the other movies and stage shows failed to do: In both its edgier screenplay and grittier characters, it offers a much more realistic interpretation of Anne Frank's days in the attic with her mother, father, sister, the three members of the "van Daan" family and the dentist "Albert Dussel." (This version retains the pseudonyms Otto Frank gave the attic's other residents when Anne's diary was first published posthumously in 1947.)

At last, these small series of rooms above Otto's spice business feel as confining and yet as broad as the diary that describes them. Obsessed with details and accuracy, this version shows us a real girl, in a note-perfect performance from 20-year-old Ellie Kendrick (who had a supporting part in "An Education"), instead of some slightly oppressed version of Nancy Drew.

Here, Anne is not yet the voice of millions; she is herself. Her impetuousness and callousness in the first half of the movie almost dare us to appreciate her, or even like her much.

By most accounts, and certainly through an objective reading of her own words, that was the real Anne: a bit of a spoiled brat whose self-confidence and outspokenness exasperated those forced to live with her in close quarters; and yet whose sharp observations of their feelings and fears skillfully conveyed the abject paranoia and terror of the Holocaust in a personal way. How fair is it for one girl's story to become the emblem for so many?

The literary scholar Francine Prose, in a fascinating book last year called "Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife," laid out a case for the very phenomenon that this new film seeks to decompress: We've heaped too much meaning on poor Anne. Underneath everything that we demand of her, even now, there remains a great story well told -- and, at last, a very good movie.

* * *

Directed by Jon Jones and superbly scripted by Deborah Moggach, this "Diary of Anne Frank" relies first and foremost on the text of the diary, which seems like a no-brainer, but is precisely where earlier versions erred.

Alongside Anne's outpourings, the residents of the attic get a new treatment, with a new emphasis on shape, depth and believability. Here, Petronella Van Daan (Lesley Sharp) is still the snooty ogre all adaptations have made her out to be but at last breaks the spell Shelley Winters cast on the role in the 1959 movie. Older sister Margot Frank finally gets her due, thanks to the understated performance of Felicity Jones; likewise praise goes to Tamsin Greig as Edith Frank, showing us a subtler and more sympathetic side of Anne's mother that we may not have considered.


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