Brian Percival’s first feature film brings Markus Kusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ to the big screen with stunning cinematography and superb acting
The Book Thief is undeniably Oscar bait but arguably fails by trying too hard to land its prize. Adapted from Markus Kusaks’ book of the same name, the story follows the titular book thief through her travails during and after the Second World War. Liesel Meminger, played with affecting gusto by Sophie Nélisse is given into foster care after the death of her brother. Waiting to receive her is Emily Watson’s frumpy and stern Rosa Huberman and her husband Hans, played by Geoffrey Rush. Hans is as much a twinkling, idealised father figure as Rosa is a shrewd Roald Dahl-esque harpy but the two veterans give an endearing performance. Liesel’s youthful naivety leaves her somewhat oblivious to the politics of Hitler’s Germany so when her new parents harbour a Jewish fugitive, tensions rise.
To offset a coming-of-age story against the horrors of the holocaust doubtless works well in written form but it risks being manipulative in the limited time available on screen. The sub-plot in which Liesel becomes the book thief is barely present and feels deliberately excised to reduce running time. That said; it is effective at stimulating an emotional reaction as even the savvy moviegoer will be possessed with a feeling of foreboding almost from the outset at the treasonous actions of the characters. After spending three quarters of the film in a state of dread, expecting horrible repercussions to strike Liesel and her new family, the eventual conclusion is both relieving and cruelly fitting. I challenge you not to breathe a sigh of relief swiftly followed by an “oh, you bastard” aimed towards the silky, well-spoken narration of Roger Allam.
The visuals are often stunning with the most striking image being that of a steam train belching smoke across a snow topped landscape. The supressed colour palette of whites, greys and browns is punctuated by unnerving flashes of red in the form of Nazi swastikas. Liesel’s dictionary wall in the basement also strikes as a dream den for any book obsessed adolescent. Accents are affected mostly successfully but English translations are distractingly interspersed with German interjections. English and German text is used interchangeably and subtitles are employed seemingly at random. To repeat, The Book Thief is undoubtedly Oscar bait, its setting and subject matter seem tailor made to earn Rush another shot at best supporting actor. Somewhat strange it is then that John Williams’ so-so score is all that’s up for recognition.
As young adult novel adaptations go, The Book Thief is pretty good, certainly better and more worthy of adaptation than most but it’s in this awards baiting worthiness that the film finds fault.