Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Brian Percival
Stars: Emily Watson, Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nelisse, Barbara Auer, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer.
The Book Thief is based on the best selling and acclaimed novel written by Australian author Markus Zusak, and like the superb The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, it looks at the horrors of war from a child’s perspective, which makes it both powerful and somehow more unsettling.
On the eve of WWII, illiterate nine-year old Liesel (newcomer Sophie Nelisse, who made her film debut in Monsieur Lazhar) is sent to live with her foster parents, the Hubermanns, in a small town in Germany. Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is a housepainter struggling to find work because he refuses to join the Nazi Partry, while Rosa (Emily Watson) is a laundress who earns a meagre allowance.
Hans is a gentle man who teaches Liesel to read and nurtures her imagination. He even puts blackboards around the walls of the basement and encourages her to write down all the new words she learns. Rosa initially appears brusque and harsh, but there is a warmth and sense of humour beneath her gruff exterior. Her bitterness contrasts with Hans’ upbeat personality and this brings some personal tension to the household.
Leisel uses her love of reading as a counterpoint to the horrors of the rise of the Nazis. She rescues a book from one of the Nazi’s bonfires, which brings her to the attention of Ilsa (Barbara Auer), the wife of the local Burgomeister, and she invites Leisel to use her own personal library. Leisel also forms a strong friendship with Rudy (Nico Liersch), the archetypal blonde haired, perfect Aryan boy who lives next door.
But Hans also provides shelter to Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish man, as a way of repaying a debt of honour from WWI. For two years Max hides in their basement, and his presence creates some palpable tension. After Max grows very sick, Leisel reads to him, and her vivid descriptions inspire him. But as time passes, Leisel discovers the full impact of the war, and her horror is reminsicent of that of the teenage protagonist in Cate Shortland’s acclaimed film Lore from last year.
The Book Thief is a story of the triumph of the human spirit in a time of adversity, a tale of innocence and guilt, of living under the spectre of the Nazi’s rise to power, and the brutality of war. The film spans several years and packs a lot into its 131 minute running time. Zusak’s 500 page novel depicted some of the horrors of the Holocaust, but the script from Michael Petroni (The Rite, The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, etc) excises many of the subplots, tones down much of the more horrific scenes and glosses over some of the darker elements. The film also plays down some of the more obvious horrors of Nazi Germany, but we still get the book burnings, the rallies, the anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht.
The precocious and naturally talented Nelisse is excellent as Liesel; she has a natural screen presence and plenty of energy and intelligence, and her nuanced performance carries the film on her young shoulders. She more than holds her own in those scenes she shares with the veterans Watson and Rush. There is also great chemistry between her and Rush.
Rush is sympathetic and brings lots of empathy to his restrained and understated performance as Hans, an inspiring father figure for Leisel, and he almost has a twinkle in his eye despite the dark nature of the material. Watson is terrific as the no-nonsense, buttoned down Rosa who hides her soft nature very well.
The director here is Brian Percival, the Emmy and BAFTA award winning director of Downton Abbey, etc, who handles the material sensitively and compassionately. He resists the temptation to delve into overwrought melodrama, ensuring that the humanity of Zusak’s novel remains largely intact. One of the big mistakes of the adaptation though is that the film retains the book’s device of having Death (voiced in supercilious fashion by Roger Allam) narrate the story, which is both distracting and clumsy.
The Book Thief has been shot at Berlin’s famous Studio Babelsberg, and the superb production design and period detail lends an authenticity to the film. The film has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (Flightplan, The Devil Wears Prada, etc). And John Williams’ evocative and restrained score underscores the poignant and moving drama.
The Book Thief is a well-acted and well-meaning drama that plays down some of the horrors of the war to ensure that the film can appeal to its target demographic, the young adult audience.