‘The Book Thief’, like other book-to-screen predecessors, has its moments of brilliance but it predictably suffers from a kind of lethargy that happens when you try to cram so much into a digestible 131 minutes.
Did it fall short? Yes, but only slightly.
Adapted from Markus Zusak’s best selling novel of the same name, ‘The Book Thief’, set during World War II, tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl left in the care of new foster parents Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and wife, Rosa (Emily Watson).
A FILM NARRATED BY DEATH
The narrator of the story, we learn, is Death himself – not exactly the kind of company you’d want to lead you through one of your darkest days. Voiced by noted British actor Roger Allam, Death, who has set his sights on Liesel speaks in a humorous yet derisive tone. “I’m not as bad as everyone thinks,” he says. “But you don’t want to argue with me,” he continues with a hint of malice.
Back to the story: Initially unable to read and write, Liesel overcomes her illiteracy with Hans’ help. She becomes a voracious reader but later finds out that books are frowned upon by the burgeoning Nazi regime.
After a mass book burning during a Nazi rally in the town square, Liesel finds herself in the personal library of the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer) who extends an invitation to Liesel to come anytime she wants to read. After being discovered by Ilsa’s husband who later forbids the clandestine readings, Liesel resorts to being a sticky-fingered bookworm – sneaking into the Hermann’s library to “borrow” a book when no one is looking.
When war escalates, the Hubermanns shelter a Jewish refugee in the cellar, Max (Ben Schnatzer), the son of the man who saved Hans during World War I. Liesel is sworn not to tell anyone of the subterfuge, not even best friend Rudy (Nico Lierscch).
A bond grows between young Liesel and Max; and some valuable life lessons are learned.
WAR THROUGH CHILD’S EYE
Director Brian Percival (of ‘Downton Abbey’ fame) has done a commendable job in telling a story through Liesel’s eyes. Through her lens, we learn how a child’s optimistic outlook of life is dashed by an oppressive regime as well as its repercussions.
Percival with screenwriter Michael Petroni attempt to faithfully translate Zusak’s source material but the book’s themes of war, humanity, mortality and courage in the face of adversity are tamped down considerably.
The result is a contemplative and bittersweet children-friendly fable about death and the Holocaust.
But what bogs the film down are the many subplots and story arcs that Percival tries to shoehorn in. Yes, the director is being faithful to the book and the threads draw you in. You’re invested but the emotional payoffs are rather short-lived, save for the heart-breaking climax, which will have you reaching for a tissue.
These work in print where the stories can develop with every turn of the page but when it comes to film, expediency is always preferred.
AN ADEPT CAST
Percival has assembled an ensemble cast of actors who has proved their mettle with their impressive range.
Most notably: the young Sophie Nélisse who, like Asa Butterfield in ‘Hugo’ before her, has perhaps given the performance of her life. She carries the film forward with her earnest portrayal of a little orphan girl who just wants to read.
It goes without saying that more enthralling turns can be seen from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Liesel’s adoptive parents.
Academy Award winner Rush (‘The King’s Speech’) gives a touching and quiet performance as eternal optimist and father figure Hans while one of Britain’s most spellbinding actresses, Watson (‘War Horse’) plays the foil to Hans’ sunny demeanour as Rosa the disciplinarian with the heart of gold.
And then there is Death – Roger Allam (‘Game of Thrones’, ‘V For Vandetta’) with his honeyed voice taking us through Liesel’s journey. In Zusak’s book, Death is more than just a narrator; a witness with an insight on life and human nature. The film fails to make the most of his profound views and the Grim Reaper is relegated to just being a storyteller – a plot device. But one who assures us of “one small fact — you’re going to die.”
That’s not to say the movie isn’t great but rather the director has created a noble film that is comparable with other WWII dramas such as ‘The Reader’ and ‘Life is Beautiful’.
But before you start comparing this with other Nazi-era movies, you have to remember that ‘The Book Thief’, despite its dark themes, is based on a “young adult” novel; hence its fantastical quality. A gateway movie of sorts for heavier fare like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Pianist’.
Sugarcoating aside, ‘The Book Thief’ is an emotional and touching film that is just perfect for those that need a picker-upper.