Monday, 22 February 2021

Movie Review: The Book Thief (2013)

A coming of age story set against a World War Two backdrop, The Book Thief is earnest, beautiful and unremarkable.

In Germany of 1938, young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), a couple suffering economically because they refuse to join the Nazi party. Hans is kind and teaches Liesel to read. Rosa is stern, worn down by the responsibilities of keeping the family fed.

Liesel grows up with a love of books and inherits her adopted father's compassion. She develops a friendship with classmate and neighbour Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), a budding sprinter. The household tension increases when Hans and Rosa provide refuge to Max, a young Jewish man. Liesel witnesses her neighbourhood change as the war drags on, her reading hobby fuelled by an unlikely bond with Ilsa Hermann (Barbara Auer), the mayor's wife.

An adaptation of the book by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is filled with honest intentions to present war from a child's viewpoint, and from behind the windows of a German anti-Nazi household as the storm clouds of a global conflict gather then erupt. Director Brian Percival creates luscious visuals within an idyllic small town (really one cobble-stoned street) where everyone knows everyone, and the regime's iron grip is represented by the Nazi flag draped on every building and an increasing number of uniforms and troop-carrying trucks.

But behind the pretty pictures and purity of perspective, Michael Petroni's script struggles to find a narrative thrust. The Book Thief is episodic, Liesel too young to influence meaningful events and generally swept along according to decisions made by others. The book thievery elements become a minor sideshow to the major incidents rocking the town, the war emerging as the most important character, everyone else a relatively meaningless pawn in the unfolding scope of history.

Which is of course true and probably works well in book format, but other than Liesel's growth from a young girl to a less young girl, the movie lacks requisite character arcs to build drama. Narration by a heaven-occupying voice of death is an interesting addition, but only serves to further underline human insignificance.

The performances are uniformly good but all remain close to pre-established single notes. Young Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse conveys appropriate levels of apprehension, wonder, and growing determination in a world gone mad.

Solemn but emotionally staid, The Book Thief steals sporadic moments of satisfaction.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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