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‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

Television Critic

After the Bible, “The Diary of Anne Frank” is the most widely read nonfiction book in the world. Translated into 60 languages, it’s been adapted countless times for stage, film and television and used in schools across the country to help children understand the meaning, and horror, of the Holocaust.

It is ideally suited for this last task because Anne, apart from being a young Jewish girl forced to go into hiding when the Germans invaded Holland, was a remarkably articulate teenager, fearless about writing precisely what she thought about everything, from her dislike of her mother to her own burgeoning sexuality. Although many of the dramatic adaptations tend to sanctify her, or to drape a foreshadowing of doom over the story of the eight people who lived for two years in the secret annex behind Otto Frank’s Amsterdam office, that is not how the diary reads at all.

And now, finally, we have a film that captures the most famous girl in the world in all her brave, brilliant and self-absorbed glory.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” that arrives on “Masterpiece” not only perfectly re-creates the secret annex, down to the golden walls and the pencil lines charting the growth of Anne and her sister, Margot, its screenplay, written by Deborah Moggach, hews as closely to the diary as humanly possible. Obviously, the narrative required dramatization, but having been granted permission by the Anne Frank-Fonds to use large portions of the diary itself, permission that has in the past been withheld, Moggach specifically wanted to show Anne as she presented herself.

Which is never saintly and often unflattering. This Anne, played brilliantly by British actress Ellie Kendrick, is mouthy and moody. Like many girls her age, she is fascinated by her own emerging self, often to the detriment of those around her. Although devoted to her father, Otto, whom she calls Pim (here played by Iain Glen), she is openly contemptuous of her mother, Edith (a movingly shell-shocked and subdued Tamsin Greig). She loves her older sister, Margot (Felicity Jones), but rebels against Margot’s more placid nature which, in Anne’s opinion, has made Margot the favored child.

Anne is not afraid to speak her mind to, or about, the other residents of the secret annex. She is forced to share a room with Albert Dussel (Nicholas Farrell), which is a constant source of conflict. The “obnoxious . . . and coquettish” Mrs. Van Daan (Lesley Sharp) and Mr. Van Daan (Ron Cook) argue too much and their son Peter (Geoff Breton), with whom she later has a romance, seems at first very dull indeed.

Witty, prickly, observant and sensitive, Anne, like so many other adolescent voices in literature, is just as confounded by what she considers the lack of honesty in the adults around her as she is by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis.

By contrast, her relatively cheerful acceptance of the all but impossible circumstances -- sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter and hungry all the time, the residents of the secret annex must be silent throughout most of the day -- remains heroic and amazing.

Kendrick, and the entire cast, deftly handle the remarkable self control and inevitable explosions that the situation creates, reflecting on the screen the actual drama of their lives, which was as much about daily living as fear of discovery.

Indeed, the performances are so compelling that it is possible to forget the inevitable outcome. And so when that horrible day of discovery does come, it is as shocking to the viewer as it is to Anne and her family.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Anne’s diary was one of the first and most powerful steps toward humanizing the countless dead and displaced. More than 60 years later, “The Diary of Anne Frank” reaches beyond the confines of her specific story, and even her specific war, to remind us of what exactly is sacrificed when nations lose their basic humanity.

mary.mcnamara @latimes.com


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