The Book Thief


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Sophie Nelisse in The Book Thief
"The children, including Nico Liersch as Leisel's friend Rudy, are genuinely good, but they are strong performances in service of a film that doesn't quite work."

Once upon a time there was a book. It was set in the past, but in one of the bits that almost everybody was familiar with. It was set in a place that meant it could have characters who were definitely good and ones who were definitely bad, and maybe even sell a reverse or two. It was apparently a good book, with themes, and symbolism, even some ambiguity, and it was uplifting. As with most books, it made its way out onto the shelves, and lots of people picked it up. Enough, in fact, that Hollywood joined them...

There's a strong cast - Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Pa and Ma Hubermann, adoptive parents to little Liesel, a precious and charming turn from Sophie Nelisse. Liesel is the titular book thief, her story starting on a train in a snow-blanketed Germany - a blank canvas, a page as yet unwritten upon.

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Adaptation duties are handled by Michael Petroni, who also helped bring The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and Queen Of The Damned to the screen. Director Brian Percival has spent most of the last decade doing period drama on TV, including several episodes of Downton Abbey. The score is provided by John Williams, and it's his usual technically excellent mixture of sweeping strings and occasionally heavy-handed emotional cues, and that's where the problems start.

It looks gorgeous - the opening sequences make tremendous use of white space, and there's some excellent set dressing throughout. Opening with passage through the clouds, voice-over provided by Death himself, we're carried towards Heaven Street. Roger Allam's narration feels a little too unctuous, a mite too measured, and given Death's role in the story a little too minimal. That's not to say there isn't violence - there is a war on - and certainly there's an occasional sense of menace, but there's a something tonally off that's hard to quantify.

The film is in both German and English: official communiques and lectures, and propaganda songs usually in the former; much of the conversation and what we see of the stolen books in the latter. They get a little on the nose - when the Hubermanns are hiding a young Jew from the Nazis little Leisel reads him HG Wells' "The Invisible Man". He's played by relative newcomer Ben Schnetzer, another part of a genuinely good cast. The children, including Nico Liersch as Leisel's friend Rudy, are genuinely good, but they are strong performances in service of a film that doesn't quite work.

It's long for a start, nearly two and a quarter hours, and while it's got nice moments it doesn't grip. Allam's a great actor, but the narration he's called to provide feels like an afterthought. The snowy landscapes and cobbled streets look great, but the film's pace across them is at times plodding. Moments of excitement are tempered by others that feel grimly predictable. Despite a frequently blank canvas it feels a bit paint by numbers. What works on the page does not always work on the screen, but this is the product of a safe pair of hands - it's faithful, faltering, and flawed.

It's not awful. There's a good story here, but as a film based on a book that draws heavily on the joys of reading and the transporting powers of text it doesn't manage the same trick. Its multilingual nature works against it. While the quantity of detail could be immersive it's often jarring to jump from one language to another, and there are similar consequences from the narration. Some of that detail tends to the stereotypical - there's precedent for films set in Nazi Germany where the starkest splashes of colour are red, and this owes a debt to most of them. The Book Thief has borrowed much from its source text, but it asks more of its audience - a great adaptation can find hidden strengths, but many just reveal fresh weaknesses. Though competent, confident, even compelling at times, The Book Thief is perhaps one to leave on the shelf.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2014
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The Book Thief packshot
A girl in Second World War Germany steals books and shares them with others.
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Read more The Book Thief reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

Director: Brian Percival

Writer: Michael Petroni, based on the book by Markus Zusak

Starring: Sophie NĂ©lisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, voice of Roger Allam

Year: 2013

Runtime: 150 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US, Germany


Glasgow 2014

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