Directed by: Brian Percival
Premise: An adaptation of the book by Markus Zusak. Set in Germany during World War II, a young girl (Sophie Nélisse) is adopted by a childless couple. The family later takes in a Jewish man and hides him from Nazi authorities.
What Works: The Book Thief has moments that are done quite well. Many individual scenes have admirable elements; this picture is very well shot with unusual camera angles and compositions that are rich with texture, the score by John Williams plays up the emotional subtext without overstating it, and the art direction is convincingly of its time period without looking like a movie set. The story takes place over several years and the filmmakers handle the passage of time pretty well. The lead character, played by Sophie Nélisse, begins the film as a girl but by the time it ends she is a teenager and the makeup crew and costumers transform her convincingly over the course of the story. The Book Thief also has some very strong performances. Sophie Nélisse is terrific in the title role and the way the actress matures her character between the beginning and end of the film is very impressive, especially since the story does not give her many big, character-defining moments. Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush play the adoptive parents and they are reliable actors delivering the kinds of performances viewers have come to expect. Rush is one of those actors whose charm and energy makes him always watchable. Watson has the more challenging role, as she starts as a stern, Eastern European stereotype whose hardness gradually falls away to reveal the sensitive person underneath.
What Doesn’t: The Book Thief has a lot of characters, themes, and subplots but the moviemakers fail to carry out any of them satisfactorily. The film has a strange voiceover that appears sporadically throughout the picture in which Death narrates the events. Perhaps this is intended to unify a film in which many characters die, but the narration is trite and silly and adds nothing to the picture. The title of The Book Thief refers to the young girl’s habit of stealing books, especially books that have been banned by the Nazi state. These portions of the movie dramatize her language arts education and emphasize how she finds comfort in stories. The trouble is that this does not lead anywhere nor does it set up or amplify other conflicts. She likes to read banned books but there are never any consequences to her actions. The movie is clearly supposed to be about the freeing power of books and while that may have been conveyed in Markus Zusak’s original novel it is lost in the adaptation to a motion picture. Two other major subplots run through The Book Thief: the housing of a Jewish refugee and the friendship between the title character and her neighbor. The scenes of the family aiding the refugee are done well but they don’t lead to a meaningful conclusion; he lives with them for a while and then he leaves and nothing is accomplished or lost in the process. The friendship between Nélisse’s character and her neighbor, played by Nico Liersch, has a similar problem. The friendship fails to develop and neither the book thieving nor hiding a Jewish refugee ever impacts their relationship in a significant way. The picture’s many narrative pieces do not come together to form a whole and the movie ends on a cheap narrative cop out that is anticlimactic and nothing comes to a meaningful conclusion. The Book Thief also fails to impress as a World War II picture. The film brings nothing new to the genre and at its worst it plays like a cynical awards-grab, the kind of movie that is crafted specifically to cater to the Hollywood awards circuit by imitating better movies such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and The Reader.
Bottom Line: The Book Thief is a film in which the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Any particular scene, examined on its own terms, has much to admire but the movie is underwhelming at best and invites scorn at its worst.
Episode: #470 (December 22, 2013)