The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Directed by Brian Percival
Starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Schentzer and Emily Watson
In UK Cinemas February 26th, 2014

by Bernie Byrnes

While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. Under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.

I felt like I should have loved this film but I didn’t. It looks beautiful. In fact it looks incredibly beautiful and it took me a while to I work out why I didn’t like it. The performances are excellent. Emily Watson (Rosa) doesn’t put a foot wrong and impressively portrays a soft, loving woman crushed into bitter harshness by the fear and hardship of the time. Geoffrey Rush plays Hans with a gentle twinkle and laudable decency while the juvenile leads Sophie Nélisse (Liesel) and Nico Liersch (Rudy) turn in performances sophisticated enough be outstanding even for adult actors. Ben Schnetzer (Max) as the personification of Jewish persecution embodies vulnerability and a noble soul, despite being unconscious for much of the film.

My main turn off with this film was the choice of Roger Allam as the Narrator / Death. I love him as an actor but in this part he was all wrong. Death in the novel is a textured, reassuring, somewhat tortured voice whereas Allam’s narration sounded like Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and gives the film an incongruous, almost trivial feel. Tasked with the opening and close of the story, it just didn’t sit right with the visuals or the subject matter and exacerbated the fact that this film is simultaneously too light and too heavy. Artistically Lisle stories aren’t special enough in the writing to merit her being a great storyteller and her life feels unspectacular. I just didn’t care and, despite John William’s beautiful score (the man can make me weep even when I don’t give a crap), I didn’t cry although there were waterworks aplenty from much of the rest of the audience.

The book describes itself as “a small story really” which sits awkwardly in such a grand, visually stunning film. Like many adaptations, the script falls into the trap of trying to get too much of the original book in to properly work. I think I am in danger of being hissed at for not liking this film but I’ve seen this story, beautiful as it is, told better. Sebastian Hülk, who turns in a memorable and engaging cameo as the Gestapo Agent, also appears in Die Verlorene Zeit / Remembrance, which on many levels does a better job. I came away from this film feeling that life was pretty meaningless, which disturbed me as the main object of the book is as an illustration that human existence is “worth it”.

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