I'm going to be generous and assume that the creators of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas didn't mean for their film to end up as contemptible awards-bait, but it did anyway, the kind of sanctimoniously somber Very Important Motion Picture that shamelessly manipulates the audience into believing that if you leave the theater feeling sad, then you must have just seen art. In the best of times, I find that approach to be cynical and obnoxious, but this isn't the best of times: this is making a sentimental little Hallmark card out of the Holocaust, a horror particularly undeserving of prestige-picture sentiment, and it leaves me angry - angrier than I've been at a movie in a long time, probably angrier than I've been at a movie all year.

I'm going to make free with the spoilers, so if you're planning to see the film and just wanted to know my opinion, you have it, and best to avoid reading any further. The film, based on a novel by John Boyne that I have not read and am surpassingly unlikely to read in the future, tells the story of Bruno (Asa Butterfield), an eight-year-old German boy in the early 1940s whose father (David Thewlis) is reassigned from Berlin to a classified post out in the country, where the family, including Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) and twelve-year-old sister Gretel (Amber Beattie), lives in a large house in the middle of the woods. As bored children will do, Bruno sneaks out of the backyard one day to visit the "farm" that he could see from his bedroom window before his mother nailed it shut, and when he gets there, he finds another boy his age named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), with shaven head and raggedy striped clothes, behind a barbed wire fence. The two boys bond, while Bruno's mother grows increasingly agitated about living so close to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp - for that is the "farm", though it is never specifically named in the film, and Bruno's new tutor (Jim Norton) teaches him and his sister about being good Germans, including the very important detail about how that includes hating the Jews. Bruno is confused: Shmuel is a Jew, and he is nice, but his father calls such people "not actually human", and the tutor is telling him that they are avaricious and incompetent - what's a wide-eyed boy to do?

The answer, as it turns out, is to sneak into the camp and hide by dressing himself in a spare set of "pajamas", the day before his mother plans to take him back to Germany, far from the horrible shadow of the death camp. But oops! That's the very day that Shmuel's hut is slated for the gas chamber, so completely by accident, Bruno ends up dying horribly with his new friend, tastefully off-camera (the inside of a gas chamber is such an ugly place for a PG-13 movie, after all), and his mother and father cry in the slow-motion rain.

The difference between "this is bad" and "this is horrible" is primarily the difference between killing off a child as your emotional climax. Killing kids isn't something you can just do - it has to be earned, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas doesn't come within a country mile of earning it. The film starts with a compelling-enough premise: to look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a child too young to understand what it means. Why not? After all, even to an adult, the Holocaust is an event of incomprehensible evil, and in a sense we're all children in the face of it, trying to make sense of something entirely beyond sense or reason. But every step of the way, the execution betrays that concept.

Somewhere along the line, the film turned into a routine period drama; probably right around the point that Mark Herman (of Brassed Off and Little Voice) was tapped to write and direct. It's one thing for the film to subvert our expectations about Nazis in English-language films by having every member of the cast speak in a tony British accent (including the American actress Farmiga), but everything about the film, from the acting to the production design to the lovely cinematography by Benoît Delhomme, calls to mind a particularly well-financed BBC literary adaptation. It's so fucking tasteful, keeping the depravities almost entirely off-screen - the worst sign of human degradation we ever see is the horrid dental appliance Scanlon wears to play Shmuel. Perhaps we've reached a new point in Holocaust cinema, where everybody knows how awful it was, so let's keep everything safe and tidy and instead focus on the supremely bland Bruno, played without distinction by a child actor who was seemingly cast only for his ability to open his bright blue eyes very wide.

The closest the film comes to actually addressing that thing that was going on comes after the midpoint, when the film's focus shifts: instead of strictly following Bruno's POV, the time is split between him and his mother, who slowly becomes aware of Auschwitz's terrible secret, kept from her as a matter of state secrecy, apparently. Just about the only truly good moment in the film is when she confronts her husband about the military necessity of a factory designed to kill Jews, and we can tell that her desire to be an upstanding German and supportive wife has just smacked headlong into her knowledge of what separates good from evil. It's a refreshingly sober moment in a film otherwise drenched in naïvete - Bruno never once in the entire film has more than a vague idea of what the hell is going on, as though it really stands to reason that the son of a high-ranking SS officer might not have been brought up from birth to despise the Jewish race.

Now, if I were interested in playing objectively, this is where I'd point out the film's fine production design and cinematography, and the fine performances that Farmiga and Thewlis give, relative to the script they must work with, but evaluating movies isn't just a numbers game - this is an art form, and art has a human component to it, and as a human I am thoroughly disgusted by The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, all the way from its naïve worldview and Britishy setting to its greedily manipulative ending. The Holocaust deserves far more than this prim Masterpiece Theater treatment.