20th Century Fox would like you to compare ‘The Book Thief’ to the Oscar-winning ‘Life of Pi’. The trailers even say, “From the studio that brought you Life of Pi.” Not the director or the writer… just the same corporation that financed both movies. The comparisons get even thinner from there.
Sure, you can argue that both films come from novels, deal with survival of the most dire circumstances, and have lots of symbolism about life, death, love and God, but that’s pretty much it. Any other comparisons are just an attempt to drive audiences to see ‘The Book Thief’ in the hopes that it will garner some of the same awards and giant pile of cash that ‘Life of Pi’ did. Unfortunately, I don’t think ‘The Book Thief’ will accomplish these goals. Although the acting and story are pretty good, the poor pacing and too many cheesily sentimental moments ultimately undo the movie. That, and the lack of expensive CG effects, a beautiful world, or a big tiger.
Working from Markus Zusak’s novel of the same name, director Brian Percival (whose main claim to fame is a couple episodes of ‘Downton Abbey’) relies mostly on his cast to keep the movie trucking along. This is not a happy story by any means. It starts out with young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) and her younger brother boarding a train, unaware that their mother is giving them up for adoption. On the way to their new family, the brother dies, as the narrator informs us over the grim images. In fact, the narrator is death himself.
Liesel is not a happy child at first. She’s forced to stay with a family with no other kids. Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) live in a small German village at the start of World War II. This village mostly consists of Germans who are not happy with Hitler and don’t want to be associated with the Nazi party. Hans is the father every child wants. He’s a kid at heart himself, who plays tunes on the organ, laughs at inappropriate times, and can talk to anybody of any age. His wife Rosa, however, has a thick outer shell, and seems to have a dark cloud over her at all times. Deep down, she’s a lovely woman, but she rarely shows it.
Soon enough, Liesel makes some friends at her new school, as well as an enemy or two. One of the friends is a boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), an aspiring runner whose hero is Jesse Owens. Things get a bit more dangerous when someone from Hans’ past shows up at his door. Max (Ben Schnetzer) is a Jewish refugee who wants to hide out in the Hubermann’s basement. With Max’s encouragement, Liesel learns to write. When she isn’t writing her own stories, Liesel enjoys “borrowing” great works of fiction from a Nazi officer’s wife, which helps her escape her sad life.
There isn’t a whole lot pretty to see here. Our backdrop is a cold and frigid Germany, without too many green pastures or blue waters to take in. Fortunately, the actors hold our attention. Watson gives a great performance as a frumpy crank who hides her soft side without getting too silly about it. In recent years, Rush has been known for playing over-the-top zany characters, and we’ve come to love him for that, but here, he plays a sincere, kind-hearted and simple man. The true star is Nelisse. Her portrayal of Liesel is full of sadness and loneliness, yet conveys the character’s strength in overcoming this horrible time in history. Her eyes sell every emotion flawlessly.
On the other hand, the execution of the rest of the film is less than thrilling. At no point in time did I feel suspense for any character – which, for a WWII movie focused on the rise of the Nazi party, means that the film is simply not doing its job. Particularly in a scene where the Nazis search basements to capture hidden Jews, it would have done Percival some good to watch Tarantino’s ‘Inglourious Basterds’, but I guess he missed that. A lot of the dialogue is cheesy and too on-the-nose” for my liking, and it seemed like the movie has four separate endings that don’t flow well at all.
On the plus side, the cinematography by Florian Ballhaus is beautiful and majestic, and the music by John Williams (yes, that John Williams) is one of the better scores I’ve heard a long time. While I’ve seen better WWII films and better Holocaust films, ‘The Book Thief’ does a good job when it isn’t trying to suck us into an emotional black hole.