The Book Thief - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
NOBLE in intent but not always convincing in execution, The Book Thief is a mostly absorbing film in spite of its flaws.
Adapted from Markus Zusak’s best-seller, Brian (Downton Abbey) Percival’s film offers an insight into life in World War II Germany as seen through the eyes of an ordinary family. It’s also a celebration of bravery and the power of literature to inspire even in the midst of one of history’s darkest chapters.
The story unfolds over a number of years as Liesel Merlinger (Sophie Nelisse) is sent to live with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann where she must attempt to make sense of the rise of Hitler’s Nazis while coming-of-age herself.
Tutored and encouraged by Hans to embrace books and do the right thing, Liesel slowly comes to realise the dangers this also poses, particularly once the Hubermanns stash a young Jew in their basement.
But inspired by the stories she reads and the various relationships she forms (including a fledgling romance with fellow youngster Rudy, Nico Liersch), Liesel quickly becomes her own woman.
Percival’s film deliberately shies away from showing some of the worst elements of the Holocaust in order to remain a film capable of appealing to younger generation audiences who may not know about it in the first place (a shocking state of affairs that Percival only became aware of himself while casting the film).
As such, it focuses on character and thrives when exploring the dynamics between Liesel and her parents (beautifully played by Rush and Watson) as well as with Rudy.
Rush, in particular, is terrific as the kindly Hans, imbuing his character with Everyman decency and a fiercely paternal instinct that gives rise to several poignant moments. But Watson is also great, transitioning expertly from a seemingly bitter wife to an equally loving matriarch.
Yet given its backdrop, Percival’s film does eventually suffer from a lack of urgency and an approach that maybe a little too softly-softly. When danger arrives, the movie lacks the tension it probably needs to elevate it to truly memorable.
Even more detrimental is a smug voiceover from Death (Roger Allam) that feels patronising and cold and which even lessens the emotional impact of one of the film’s pivotal scenes.
Hence, for all the good in Percival’s film, the shortcomings do take their toll – a point best exemplified by The Book Thief‘s failure to register more strongly in this year’s awards race despite being positioned as a hopeful contender.
Running time: 132mins
UK Release Date: February 26, 2014