An outstanding central performance and a flair for authenticity lift the BBC’s adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” above a handsome yet staid presentation, resulting in a solid telefilm that could well become the new standard for high school classes and scholars, if not necessarily one for the ages. Airing on Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — on PBS, this thorough, well-paced Masterpiece Classic presentation should attract a respectable viewership.
Such an oft-adapted piece can often sink or swim based on the caliber of its leading lady, and relative newcomer Ellie Kendrick provides perhaps the best Anne Frank yet committed to film. Unafraid to play the famous diarist as a very ordinary teenager — prone to narcissism and occasional outright vindictiveness — Kendrick avoids the obvious growing-up signifiers as Anne subtly develops from bratty adolescent to soulful, sexually maturing young woman.
Kendrick also imbues Anne with enough fire to suggest the artist she was on her way to becoming. (Indeed, “The Diary of Anne Frank” is less the story of a girl hiding from the Nazis than it is the story of an artistic awakening, interrupted by Nazis.) It isn’t hard to imagine Kendrick’s Anne growing up to become a Simone de Beauvoir-style Left Bank intellectual, which makes the sense of arrested potential at the end feel all the more tragic.
Opening with scarcely five minutes to establish the setting — Holland, 1942 — Anne and her family are quickly ushered into the secret achterhuis above father Otto Frank’s (Iain Glen) old offices, where they are to live for the next two years in hiding from the occupying Germans. In quick succession they are joined by the three Van Daans — a declasse couple and their dreamy teenage son Peter (Geoff Breton) — as well as dentist Albert Dussel (a winningly uncomfortable Nicholas Ferrell).
Despite the war raging loudly outside, much of the Franks’ tension and fear of being discovered (or bombed) is curiously absent from this adaptation, which focuses more on the tedium of spending so much listless time in such cramped quarters. (As Anne sardonically puts it, the notion of being arrested and shot by Nazis is “a fairly dismal prospect.”) Anne’s flirtations with Peter are well played in this regard; while the pair exhibit some sincere moments of romance, they’re also aware that their attraction may be merely the result of having so little else with which to occupy themselves.
Dussel, with whom roommate Anne had repeated conflicts, is not portrayed as the bumbling “nitwit” of the diary and many previous adaptations, but rather as a serious, seriously suffering man whom Anne treats rather cruelly. This clashes a bit with the cartoonish renditions of the bickering, tacky Van Daan family — while they certainly appeared as such to Anne, such portrayals are out of step with a film that otherwise aims for objectivity. Attempts to wring goofy humor out of Mrs. Van Daan’s anesthetic-less tooth extraction are likewise offputting.
Music is at times excessively elegiac, and while other tech contributions may tend toward the sepia-toned respectability of past Masterpiece Theater excursions, they are nonetheless expertly executed.