Studio Ghibli’s 1988 classic Grave of the Fireflies has never left me from the first time I saw it. I often reference it as one of the finest anti-war films ever made and an example of how powerful animation can be. Nora Twomey’s The Breadwinner is its equal.
Based on the bestselling novel by Deborah Ellis, it too gives a perspective on war that few of us could appreciate; by telescoping into a smaller story about children. The complicated mess that is the recent history of Afghanistan is translated into an achingly beautiful story, told with humility and rich with painful nostalgia for an old, proud country almost lost to the Taliban. There is a tangible sadness which can be almost too much to bear, except the structure of a story within a story allows for dreamlike-fantasy, and with it, hope to humanise the politics. This, an animation is a real place with a real family, not what you've seen on the news for the last 18 years.
Afghanistan, 2001. Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) is 11 years old, growing up in the shadow of the Taliban. Her father is arrested, for nothing, and Parvana disguises herself as a boy so she can even venture outside, let alone earn money. Her father’s stories of myths and legends keep her going, stories she passes onto to her baby brother Zaki. Tragedy surrounds the family and their home is hostile, yet she finds the determination to find her father in a foreboding, infamous prison. The threat of war hangs on the horizon like a storm, but the ensuing chaos provides a dangerous opportunity to break the status quo.
Despite the grim nature of the story that grows in urgency and tension, it is enchantingly told and empowering. You might not think that such a story is suitable for children, and there are some strong scenes to consider, but its 12 certificate is well-placed. The tempo of the film is just like Twomey’s earlier work (Song of the Sea, Secret of the Kells). The contrast of colours; the wide-eyed simplicity of the drawings; the soft voices; the urge to imagine and be silly. All combine into a theatrical whole that will bewitch children and adults alike. It is more rewarding in that sense than Grave of the Fireflies and more accessible than Persepolis, an otherwise not dissimilar tale from Iran.
The worst kept secret in cinema is that animation is frequently more assured than live-action, especially in recent years. The breadth of styles and emotion is staggering. The Breadwinner follows Studio Canal’s recent release of The Red Turtle and we are being spoiled. Cartoon Saloon is not as prolific as Studio Ghibli or Pixar, but just as essential.
There is a 29-minute feature that looks into the creative process and the history of the project. It’s fascinating and the interviews with the wonderful Nora Twomey and her crew are entertaining and insightful. Also included is a short introduction to the film by director Twomey and executive producer Angelina Jolie. It’s odd and feels false, filmed like one of those awkward autocue-driven preambles to an award or a plea for donations. Avoid, at least until you’ve seen the film.
The Breadwinner is a beautiful film in more ways than one and the Blu-ray 1080p presentation wrings every drop of potential out of the image. The animation itself is deceptively simple, but it’s full of contrast and small details that give it a depth. The Afghanistan it renders, both modern and fantastical, is striking.
The sound design of The Breadwinner is wonderful and it’s perfectly delivered in the 5.1 track. This is no Disney musical of course; it is the environmental sounds that draw you in and the voices centred and clear. When called for, it packs a punch too.
Read our interview with the film's director Nora Twomey here