Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Genre: Drama/ War
In Germany 1938, a young girl called Liesel (Nélisse) arrives in a small town to live with her foster parents (Rush and Watson). Though illiterate at first, with the help of her foster father and schooling Liesel quickly learns to read and becomes a passionate reader of all literature, including books forbidden by society at that time. As the war takes hold, Liesel’s foster parents hide a young Jewish man called Max (Ben Schnetzer) and many men on the street are called up to serve. Through their love of literature, Liesel forms a bond with Max and it is her passion for words that helps to see her through the many harrowing tragedies of the war that she sees and experiences.
I have not read it myself, but have been informed from great authority that the original book by Markus Zusak is a very well written and an emotionally involving read. However I have not read the book and this review is solely based on having seen the film, and so the fact that in my opinion as a film The Book Thief is a never less than watchable, but slightly underwhelming and never truly absorbing is not a criticism of the book of which it is based. The fact is, the subject matter should mean that The Book Thief is an emotionally involving and occasionally heartbreaking film. Maybe screenwriter Michael Petroni, director Brian Percival and all others involved with the making of the The Book Thief were very complacent as they knew this to, as what they have ultimately produced is actually quite alienating at times, with the emotions almost feeling forced upon us due to the film’s aesthetics.
Visually the film is very well put together, but that for me is part of the problem: Every scene just feels way too twee and polished, almost picture postcard-like. I am not saying the film should be horrific as possible, as again that would bring forced emotions, but attempting to achieve a 21A (or PG-13 in the states) certificate can be worked around when dealing with such an emotional, poignant and often horrific subject matter, yet here I am afraid to say that I cannot help but feel the filmmakers have missed the mark by some way. I of course do not have the solution, but it just feels the raw power that the novel apparently had has been well and truly diluted by a film whose producers want to achieve box office success. The story is a moving one, and its setting of time and place certainly are too, yet due to the extreme over production of the entire film it seems to take away the sense of danger and threat, and often The Book Thief genuinely threatens to turn in to truely glossy and over schmaltzy tosh. I do not often criticise a film for perhaps being too well made, but I think The Book Thief truly is, and that is very much to its detriment.
Despite the apparent complacency of those behind it, the setting and the film’s meditations on death are of course still moving, though I say this giving absolutely no credit to those that made it. The film’s main saving grace is the performances: the predominantly young cast all give great performances, and as Liesel’s foster parents Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson manage to elevate their characters above their slightly clichéd contradictory characteristics to provide genuine heart in roles they could admittedlydo in their sleep.
When it is a big budget glossy film set in a foreign country (ie, not America), especially in recent history, the makers a faced with a conundrum of what to do about accents. I would always personally prefer the language of the time with subtitles, but of course for obvious reasons that was never going to happen, and so The Book Thief is in (broken) English with German accents. The accents are good, with the young supporting cast all bilingual which is good, but the main annoyance in my view is the broken English: the occasional word such as “no” is in German which is very irritating. If the film was truly engrossing this maybe would not matter so much, but it just serves as another reminder as how The Book Thief is very much an over stylised, over glossy and cynically complacent film. Even the score composed by the legendary John Williams is disappointingly conventional and underwhelming.
Another off putting stylistic choice that detracts from the emotional involvement of the narrative is the narration by ‘death’. Voiced by Roger Allam, he is an actor I am a huge fan of and I have no doubt that his lugubrious tones are perfect for the character of death, but for me in The Book Thief contribute to the lack of emotional involvement and show lazy and complacent screenwriting. I can imagine that on the page this narration is very poignant and appropriate for both the telling of the story and the deeper themes it deals with, but in the film it just feels like a pompous and slightly lecture-like interruption.
The Book Thief is yet another film made with the cynical mindset of money grabbing producers, and so a very emotionally and at times devastating story has been seriously diluted and turned into an over produced and glossy period piece that patronisingly signposts the certain emotions we should be feeling when watching it. The raw emotion of the source material, the setting and the performances still make The Book Thief a watchable drama with the occasional genuinely emotional moment, but it could (and should) have been so much better.