By Richard Haridy
May 5, 2014
Based on Australian author Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel The Book Thief, Brian Percival‘s film adaptation is faithful to a fault, with Michael Petroni’s screenplay struggling to generate a strong narrative through-line from the dense and episodic source material.
Beginning in 1938, it follows the story of young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a girl growing up with her progressive foster parents (Geoffrey Rush & Emily Watson) in the thick of Nazi Germany. As well as discovering a fascination with books, Liesel develops a transformative friendship with a young Jew who is sheltered in the basement of their house.
The most surprising aspect of The Book Thief is how understated and quiet it frequently is. It’s to Percival’s credit the emotional undercurrents are rarely pushed to the point of cheese when things could’ve very easily gone in that direction. Rush is also amazingly charming as Liesel’s foster father, bringing a lovely jauntiness to the frequently drab story.
At 131 minutes though, the feature does suffer from a sense of shagginess in its narrative structure, and the ending feels shockingly rushed and abrupt, leaving us with the feeling that all these episodic events didn’t really amount to much. The audacious gambit of Death narrating the movie has been carried over from the novel and it adds a bizarre touch of whimsy that is truly jarring. It was a lazy conceit in the novel and it fares no better here, seeming jokey and amateurish with its pseudo-philosophical musings that feel more pretentious that revelatory.
The Book Thief is never boring, but often dull – as if its sharp edges had been blunted in order to make a feel-good PG picture about the Holocaust. It’s a well-meaning effort with a story that is sincerely trying to get at something important, except what worked as a novel fundamentally struggles when translated to the screen. Serviceable in every regard and ultimately not much more complex than the moment in which two children yell “I hate Hitler” across a lake, it imparts the message that Nazis are bad, books are good, and Geoffrey Rush would make a great dad even in WWII Germany.
The Book Thief will be available from Quickflix on May 7, 2014.