The Book Thief nearly undone by trite approach
If good intentions translated into quality filmmaking Brian Percival’s The Book Thief would be among the greatest movies ever made. But alas, purpose of this sort does not translate into quality art and while the director may have his heart in the right place, the result is a stilted tale that becomes bogged down by sentimentality.
The film stumbles out of the gate by retaining a rather dubious plot device from Markus Zusak’s novel, upon which the movie is based. A voice-over narration is employed telling us of the trials of young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), an orphan that is taken in by the Hubermanns, Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). The narrator happens to be Death itself and the entity as portrayed in the story is not an all-knowing being but rather one that questions the destruction and violence that is happening in Liesel’s part of the world as the setting is Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. The many observations that are made by the unseen reaper are often distracting and at times comical; the tone Percival creates is broken each time the narrator chimes in and as a result the viewer may have a hard time getting wrapped up in the story as a result.
That’s a shame because at its core, Thief contains a fairly engaging story. Liesel is illiterate yet knows that great treasure lies within the pages she can’t decipher. Hans begins to teach her how to read and once the young girl becomes fluent, she simply can’t get enough of the written page, so much so that she takes to rescuing books from Nazi book burnings and borrows others from the library of the kindly Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer) who happens to be the Burgomaster’s wife. However, Liesel has other worries as the Hubermanns are hiding a young Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) who has fallen ill; if he were to die, it would put Hans and Rosa in a precarious position while breaking their daughter’s heart.
The work of the three principals nearly saves the movie as they each deliver honest performances in seeming opposition to Percival’s cloying approach. Rush finds the perfect balance between pathos and melodrama, giving us a man who attempts to adhere to his sense of morality as the world around him falls apart to tragic results. Watson, who never gets enough credit, is successful in providing various shades of emotion as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, avoiding the many pitfalls a role like this is prone to. And Nelisse is a real find, a young actress who gives an unaffected turn, never calling attention to herself for being too cute or precocious. The sincerity these three bring makes the film bearable; without them, Thief would have been far too sappy for its own good.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.