Due to powerful performances and beautiful imagery, a film destined to studio crafted mediocrity climbs above to a sweet, emotional experience.
Based on the international best-selling novel by author Markus Zusak, The Book Thief tells the story of a spirited and curious young girl who is sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany. From there we witness as the years pass, visitors and friends come and go and as our young heroine falls in love with the utter simplicity yet grandeur of the written word-all back dropped by a brutal war that is waging on.
There’s nothing about this film that ultimately breaks the mold: the narrative is straight forward, the script refuses to take risks, refining our narrators, (Death voiced wonderfully by Roger Allam) lines despite his importance. Despite the shortcomings and the overt triteness what viewers are seemingly forgetting is that this is all shown through the point of view of a child-she isn’t worldly, she has only just begun to actively seek out knowledge. She doesn’t-like most children-understand the horror and consequences of war.
Despite having nothing but contempt for Hollywood’s love for World War II movies, I do have a sliver of interest in how it was viewed from a young girls eyes. Howe own world, her own street, the snow and the lake, the magical comfort of literature-it all seems grandiose- her world, her personal world, is amplified while war and the boy soldiers going off to die and Hitler himself all seem like distant arbitrary threats. They’re there but to Liesel they’re nothing but whispers at threats because no harm could ever come to Hans, the man who welcomed her like a princess or tough old Rosa, of even the boy who only wants to be her friend in the house next to hers.
And then Max, the son of an old wartime friend of Hans, shows up on their doorstep, running from imprisonment and asking for help. Now Liesel has a threat living in her home, one that grows close with.
The problem with this film is that it can’t quite find its tone and resolves to fall into the lackluster. It has the feel of a mid-1990’s film due to its set locations and close quarters film style. The director Brian Percival does nothing to try to enhance the film with his own personal style, rather it’s a beautiful set, with some wonderful actors, reading some affecting lines. The director in this film is a near non-entity.
The timing of the film is erratic. Time passes with little notice and despite the effectiveness of the emotionally stirring moments, they seem more manipulative rather than well-earned.
Luckily for them they have a trio of performers helming the piece that more than make up for any of the pitfalls. Geoffrey Rush is warmth personified as Hans, being lovely and welcoming soft in moments, but bringing the necessary depth and soul as well. Emily Watson as Rosa is, like Rush, so naturalistic that it’s easy to overlook just how much she’s doing with the character. She’s tough as nails but she’s fiercely protective as well, only wanting to keep her family safe.
Undoubtedly though this is Liesel’s story and Sophie Nelisse plays her with a subtle grace beyond her age. Having appeared in the wonderful Monsieur Lazhar last year it isn’t a shock that she’s a talented younger actress but this turn around she needed to carry the film and she does, any lesser actress and this film may not have worked as it had, with her charm and reckless abandon driving it. She grows a wonderful camaraderie with the cast, including Ben Schetzer, also a charming up and comer, who plays Max.
The Book Thief is full of fault most of which that lies on the shoulders of an uninspired director who seemingly had no direction in where he wished to take the story. The acting is top notch, the story touching, but the way in which the story is told is stale considering the breadth of material they had before them. They needed to embrace the fragility and strength of the human spirit, see Liesel as our narrator did, a child with courage and ambition who he just can’t seem to let go of, for whom he held an affection. There was so much potential for this film to be great but due to directing choice-or the lack thereof- instead the film was middle of the road, good but forgettable.
As we’re told in the film, words are life, but in order to be so we need the person holding the pen or standing behind the camera to breathe life into them.
The Book Thief is in limited release now.