UK Release Date: 26th February 2014
Runtime: 131 minutes
Director: Brian Percival
Writer: Michael Petroni
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Roger Allam, Nico Liersch
Synopsis: A young girl, taken from her Communist parents, is sent to live with a German family who illegally harbour a young Jewish man during the Second World War.
There has been a lot of criticism since The Book Thief was released of its schmaltzy tone, glossing over the realities of the Second World War Germany that it depicts. However, that would do a great disservice to an elegant, well-acted film that has a brave attempt at adapting Markus Zusak’s bestselling novel.
Bookish youngster Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is transported to a German family after being taken from Communist parents. Her kindly new father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) introduces her to the world of books, without the knowledge of her stern stepmother Rosa (Emily Watson). Danger comes to the new family when they take in a fugitive Jew, with whom Liesel strikes up a friendship through literature.
The main criticism of The Book Thief has been that it’s too safe to fully work with its wartime setting. But this isn’t Saving Private Ryan. This is a child’s eye view of conflict, and whilst it doesn’t come close to the raw power of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it is a tightly focused tale rather than a broad view.
| “When life robs you, sometimes you have to rob it back.”
Youngster Sophie Nélisse is magnetic in the poignant central role, bringing real heart and depth to a character who could so easily have been brittle and blandly introverted. She is supported amply by a beautifully avuncular Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, who sells her character’s journey absolutely perfectly, from stern authoritarian to sorrowful mother/wife.
Unfortunately, the characters in The Book Thief played by non-German actors are hamstrung by terrible accents that really hinder their roles. They should’ve made a decision to either do the film in German or just use natural accents. It’s jarring for almost the entire movie.
Equally jarring is the strange plot device, imported from the book, that has Roger Allam (The Thick of It’s Peter Mannion MP) narrating the film as Death. His voice-over is the best part of The Book Thief on paper, delivered with relish and rich with dark humour. Unfortunately, it jars with the serious tone of the movie and appears to be simply shoe-horned into the film at random.
| “The only truth that I truly know is that I am haunted by humans.”
That said, The Book Thief is a successful film that balances the lightness of its bookish premise with a dark streak befitting of its premise. This is most keenly felt in a stand-out scene involving an anti-Semitic song from a choir of children.
It’s plodding and flawed, but The Book Thief succeeds in doing exactly what it intends to do. It may not do justice to its much-adored source material, but it does a solid job of being a child’s eye view of the horrors of wartime Germany.
Pop or Poop?
Great performances and an impressive layer of gloss rescue The Book Thief from its flaws, including an intrusive score from John Williams and the poor management of the source novel’s strange narrative device.
As a child’s eye view of the war, this is a solid story with real emotion at its core. Sophie Nélisse is definitely an actress to watch.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.