The Breadwinner

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UK Release Date 25th May 2018
Director Nora Twomey
Starring Saara Chaudry
Runtime 94 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 18th May 2018

Song of the Sea, from esteemed animation studio Cartoon Saloon, was a mesmerising creation. A wonderfully unique but retro animation style, engaging characters and a genuine feel of authenticity to its Irish heritage lent weight to an animation that was easily viewed by adults and kids alike. The latest from the studio follows the same lines of quality whilst hitting a new level of storytelling that is challenging for all age groups.

The Breadwinner, follows the fortunes of young Parvana (Saara Chaudry). Living in Taliban dominated Kabul with her injured veteran father, mother, sister and infant brother, life for the poor family is tough. Her father’s attempts to generate anything close to an income for his family are hampered by his war injuries and the pervasive Taliban presence. When Parvana witnesses him being falsely accused of a crime by a young, arrogant Taliban soldier and carted off to jail, her entire tiny world changes before her. Under the Taliban’s oppressive regime, the event leaves the family without anyone to earn money and even to escort the women out of the house.

Anyone with any interest in history will realise that this latest slight on day to day life in Kabul is just that, only the latest. Having been on the receiving end of a succession of occupations brought about by not much more than being unfortunate enough to be a gateway to trade for oppressive powers, the locals are just being subjugated by a different group of ideologues. Parvana finds herself another tier down under this initial layer of oppression. As a girl in a viciously strict patriarchy, she is trapped in a no-mans land (all irony from the phrase noted). Too young to marry and therefore become an actual citizen but without any paternal protection, her and and her family are doubly damned by circumstances well beyond their control. The bitterness of this situation is amplified by her father’s obvious service for his country during the Soviet occupation and her older brother’s unexplained death. 

Parvana is not one to be kept down though and when her mother is on the receiving end of a savage beating for attempting to cross town to the prison to visit her husband, she resolves to provide for her family and to find out what has become of her father. Meeting another young girl, Shauzia in the marketplace, she realises that as bold and arrogant that the local militia are, they are equally as stupid and that both can move freely with shorter hair and a change of clothing. Thus a short term escape and bond is formed with the classmate.

In order to both cope with the unfolding horror of her daily life and to help her family deal with it, Parvana tells an ongoing story about a young boy standing up to the Elephant King. During these recanted stories, the movie switches to a kind of cutout animation, full of colour and oddball characters as Parvana's brave peasant sets out to liberate the seeds stolen from his village by an evil monster. Though none of the animation is overtly horrific, the story sections are noticeably more cartoon like and help to alleviate the grinding horror of the main story. It’s a genuine relief that the audience shares, being pulled out of the daily horror of occupied life into a story where the hero at least has a chance of winning, despite the outrageous odds stacked against him. The pronoun there is deliberate and significant.

Though an animation, the movie doesn't flinch from dealing with the themes brought up by the Taliban rule. There is a genuine sense of coming dread as fighter jets streak across the sky and at times the action will come across pretty strongly for younger viewers. Thinking of this movie as anything other than an animation is a grim prospect. The insurmountable challenges levelled at the young protagonist bring to mind Mark Twain’s rumination on the need for fiction to make sense. Real life for Parvana is so utterly, relentlessly absurd and hopeless that not only is an animation of it the only way to display it, the main character needs to create another level of animated world to deal with it. Only in that fairytale can Parvana hope to control any sense of an ending. In the real world, she is faced by an occupation and a coming war, utterly out of her control.

As Parvana, Chaudry (a young teenager at the time of securing the role) shows a maturity that belies her years, exactly in keeping with her character. Parvana is a resilient and resourceful soul, optimistic and determined even in the face of a horribly opressive male dominated society and all the unfairness that comes with that. The labyrinthine and counter productive unfairness of the restrictions placed on her life is magnificently horrible to comprehend. 

Directed by Nora Twomey (The Secret of Kells), this is wonderful and challenging movie. The animation is magnificent and breathtakingly beautiful at times - if you have seen Song of the Sea, this will look familiar but not overly so. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered with bright, vibrant characters overlaid. The story within a story helps to balance the day to day horror, just as it all threatens to become too much to bear, again perfectly reflecting the characters' experiences but never once diminishing them for the viewer.

In Brief:

The Breadwinner is another impressive picture for Cartoon Saloon and a superb piece of work from Twomey, writing team Anita Doron and Deborah Ellis (from whose book this is adapted) and Chaudry. Relentlessly optimistic in the face of horrific circumstance, the characters' triumph of spirit is wonderful to behold. The animation styles work incredibly well together, easing the tone exactly when it is required and facing the horror head on. In truth, it’s not easy to see which age group this is aimed at. As a <cough> forty something, I found it very nearly on a level with Grave of the Fireflies. And I rate that as one of the best war movies ever made. This isn’t that but it isn’t trying to be. As a true meditation on a child’s attempts to handle grief in a world that even adults can’t understand, this is sublime. In a weird quirk of Hollywood fate, this movie happened to stack up against another Oscar nominated movie that was also centred on a child dealing with death. It’s unfortunate that Pixar made that movie and it was also wonderful. Any other year, this one would have been an Academy Award winner. No matter, this is a superb piece of work on every level.

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