Synopsis: While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. Under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.
Stars: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch
Director: Brian Percival
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: You know you’re in trouble when you discover in the first minutes of The Book Thief that Death will be your unseen narrator. Having not read Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel of the same name, I can’t rightly tell you if Death’s narrative had a less cavalier attitude toward the horror of Nazi Germany during World War II. It’s presented on screen though with an uncomfortably lighthearted approach that winds up sanitizing these dark times to fit into a more family-friendly-lets-have-a-discussion-afterward book club-y vibe.
Let’s backtrack a bit. In bringing the bestseller to the screen, director Brian Percival (right at home in a period drama having coming from directing Downton Abbey) and screenwriter Michael Petroni kept the framework of Zusak’s novel intact but didn’t go any further with it. What’s left is a perfectly fine drama that seems a natural fit to take in on a snowy day but one that tries at all costs to avoid addressing the inevitable outcome of most of the characters we’re introduced to.
Orphan Liesel (wide-eyed and remarkable newcomer Sophie Nélisse) comes to live with adoptive parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush, The Best Offer) and Rosa (Emily Watson, Anna Karenina) in a small German town. Quiet, solemn, and unable to read the girl is warmly received by Hans but kept at a distance by Rosa who had expected to receive a boy that could help with the chores. As family dramas go, the eventual bonding between the three happens like we know it will; Hans teaches Liesel to read and Rosa eventually comes around. If it weren’t for those pesky Nazis burning books and killing an entire population of people the story may have been over.
Liesel and her next-door pal Rudy (another strong child performer, Nico Liersch) grow up side by side, dealing with bullies, personal squabbles, and the eventual realization that their lives will be forever changed when war breaks out. There’s a lot of material to mine for dramatic purposes here and most of it is taken in stride by our able bodied leads and several strong supporting performances.
So why didn’t The Book Thief move me more? John Williams’ Golden Globe nominated score is rich with emotion that sets the appropriate tone and the vibrant cinematography from Florian Ballhaus (Hope Springs) puts you right where you need to be to have your hankies ready for a tear-stained-face sorta finale. Still, the eventual ending didn’t have much of an impact on me because the central danger, the omnipresent fear these people lived in was always kept on the periphery and not addressed.
I’d say to those interested in The Book Thief to focus on the performances rather than whatever the film fails to let materialize. Nélisse and Liersch are charmers and give fuel to a cautious recommendation from this critic.