Australian author Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is an incredibly popular novel, having won a number of awards and listed on The New York Times Best Seller list for over 230 weeks since it was published in 2005. With Zusak’s mother from Germany and his father from Austria, The Book Thief was added to the collection of novels about Germany in the early 20th century and was particularly memorable for its narration by the personified Death.
Based on the acclaimed novel, this film adaptation of The Book Thief follows the plot of the book: it’s the story of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), a young girl forced into foster care in the 1930s pre-wartime Germany. She is then taken in by the cold-hearted Rosa (Emily Wason) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush), a kind, music loving and nurturing older man. As the war begins to form and German society changes, Liesel finds herself growing up in a world she doesn’t understand and a community that condemns literature – a passion she begins discover despite her being illiterate.
Directed by Brian Percival, The Book Thief is well-intentioned and handles the story with delicacy. Unfortunately the tone of the film isn’t stable and The Book Thief ends up being a film made for middle-aged children. Written from a child’s perspective yet narrated by Death, there isn’t a solid ground for the audience to be affected. Struggling to generate momentum, the pacing of the film is the biggest weakness. Rather than be shocked and building intensity through the depiction of Nazi Oppression, hunger and the beginning of war, the film looks surprisingly glossy and very much like a studio version of the reality Germans would have faced.
Fortunately the acting makes up for the flaws in the script and direction. Newcomer Nelisse is incredible as Liesel, a truly unforgettable performance in the lead role. Nelisse carries the film and hopefully we will see more of her in years to come. Rush is fantastic as always, playing the eccentric caretaker of Liesel and her teacher. Watson is stuck playing the mother-figure as many of her other roles, and is demanding and cold towards her new foster child. There are other characters as well, which are better unexplained in order to not spoil the film, but largely all the characters are one-dimensional and easily forgettable.
What lacks here is the emotional response that the novel had, a direct result of the simplicity chosen by director Percival. It feels unbelievably Hollywood-ized and doesn’t wish to portray the true grit of the period. On top of that the film sports the typical anti-Nazi/evil doers by juxtaposing scenes of Kristallnacht with the innocent voices of children to stir the audience to feel hatred for the actions, as employed by every other WWII film. What The Book Thief is, is a film with an abundance of artistic beauty but lacking much substance.
Originally published on CelebrityOz, January 8, 2014.
Watch the trailer for The Book Thief below: