The Book Thief Reviews
Great Film! "The Book Thief" has wonderful photography by Florian Ballhaus, an excellent musical score by Golden Globe and Oscar winning John Williams, and best of all, marvelous acting from Sophie Nelisse as the young girl, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as her adoptive parents, and Ben Schnetzer as the Jewish boy they hide. Many of the core scenes with Nelisse, Watson, and Rush should be required viewing at any acting school. If the film has any fault at all, it is the decision by the film makers to try to walk a fine line between drama and fable. Having "Death" as the narrator right from the start seems to suggest fable, but the story itself veers sharply to drama for most of the 2+ hours, and then, noticeably at the end, reverts to fable. Some viewers may find this disconcerting. But the power of the story and the acting generally compensate for this short coming.
Based on the beloved bestselling book, THE BOOK THIEF tells the story of a spirited and courageous young girl who transforms the lives of everyone around her when she is sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany.
I liked the unique approach of narration by the Angel of Death (Roger Allam) of the events starting in April 1938 in Nazi Germany. We hear that Angel of Death telling us how the young Liesel Meminger (Sophie NÚlisse) has piqued his interest. Liesel is traveling on a train with mother (Heike Makatsch) and younger brother when her brother dies. At his burial she picks up a book that has been dropped by his graveside (a gravedigger's manual). Liesel then finds herself in a new family, foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, because her mother, a Communist, is in danger. When she arrives, Liesel makes a very strong impression on a neighbour boy, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), and they become best friends.
I liked the performances of Sophie NÚlisse as Liesel Meminger, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Meminger's foster parents. Smooth, almost effortless and innocently lovely! I wish the director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni could reach that level... but they were simply craftsmen serving up just another tasteful, staiged Hollywood imagination of the terrible times. There was no feeling or excitement and the slow pace didn't bring the suspense or mystery or even heaviness... most of the time ignited a wish for the director to speed up the things! It was a watchable movie but there was lack of honesty in it!
I joke about how it's been some time since we've seen a major film follow this sort of subject matter, but now that the Nazi film sub-industry is back in business, this film reminds you of what you've been missing a touch too much, following a worthy, but almost tired formula, until rendered utterly predictable as a conventional film about Nazism that at least cuts back on such tropes as a heavier sense of consequence. Later on, I will, of course, touch upon how natural shortcomings should perhaps limit the meat of this drama, but I can't help but feel as though this film is playing things a bit safe in its often watered down portrayal of the struggles we all know and are compelled by, yet can't get an especially firm enough grip on in this particular interpretation of limited consequence, no matter how much the storytellers try to draw out resonance. Having a tendency to almost abuse, say, John Williams' tender score, if not attempt to compensate for limitations in gritty happening with atmospheric overemphasis, this film has its share of genuine touches as a drama, but in far too many areas, it's sentimental, often to the point of being, dare I say, cheesy, being all but cloying in its desperate attempts at milking worthy subject matter for all its worth, no matter how much this particular vehicle for it lacks juice, even in concept. With all of my griping about how this drama either falls short on weight, or tries too hard to reinforce it, even the basic premise behind this particularly minimalist study on getting by in the midst of Nazism's rise isn't nearly as biting as other, perhaps more unique tales from this unforgettable time period, and if there is meat on the bones of this drama, then it's a while before they kick in on paper, let alone in execution. Yes, I joked about it time and again in the opening paragraph, but make no mistake, the final product's runtime is about as problematic as anything, for although this film is far from "Schindler's List" in its bloating, the runtime of 131 minutes is forcibly achieved through excesses, not so much in material, but filler, which further thins out the sense of urgency to this minimalist drama, and kind of dulls down what momentum there is to this narrative before too long, until the film ends up meandering along, lacking in drive, originality and meat. So much heart, in addition to an unexpectedly fair bit of entertainment value, is placed into this ambitious, maybe even overambitious project that the final product stands on the brink of rewarding, but it could have been so much more, and it would have is the overwhelming familiarity, safeness, sentimentality and dragging didn't give you more than enough time to think about the natural shortcomings that bland the final product into relative underwhelmingness. Nevertheless, while a grip on momentum is loose, decency is generally secured so firmly that, as I said, the final product comes close to a rewarding status, or at least entertains, partly with its aesthetic value.
I can't help but feel as though this film is sort of working to evoking thoughts of "Schindler's List" by employing John Williams to compose its score, and, yeah, don't go thinking that Williams is nearly as inspired with this score as he was with one of the best of his long, long career, composing a soundtrack which is not only conventional and lacking in prominence, but has plenty of cheesy spells which drive the sentimentality that in turn helps drive the final product into underwhelmingness, and yet, Williams still delivers on plenty of effectiveness to more subtly sharp classical sensibilities that not only help sustain entertainment value, but helps in capturing the feel for this period drama. More direct of a supplement to the selling of this effort is, of course, Bill Crutcher's, Jens L÷ckmann's and Anja MŘller's art direction, which, of course, isn't really rich in this minimalist period piece, but convinces enough in its production and costume designs to immerse you in the era, while certain lovely visuals, complimented by Florian Ballhaus' cinematography, draw you in on an aesthetic level. This is a very handsome film, of course, not quite being inspired enough to really stand out even on an artistic level, but still carrying enough tastefulness to its hearty, if derivative score and dapper, if minimalist visual style to strike more than a few aesthetic chords, and therefore play a part in endearing you to a finely drawn portrait on finely drawn subject matter. Needless to say, this film's thematic subject matter regarding caring for your fellow human in a dark time of dehumanization has enough of its own intrigue, it's just that there's something lacking about the meatiness and scope of this particular subject matter vehicle, which, even then, is still charming, with some sharp dramatic punctuation which brings this fictional story down to earth enough to succeed as an avatar for many important true stories. While undercooked, this story convinces enough to compel a fair deal, much like the acting, which is about as solid as it can be across the board, particularly within the lead cast, which boasts a humanly charming Ben Schnetzer, a memorably bitter Emily Watson, a delightfully warm Geoffrey Rush, and young leading lady Sophie NÚlisse, who convinces, not just with a German accent (First it's the French, Americans, and the British and Columbians simultaneously, and now the Germans, so it would appear Canada is well on its way to ripping everyone off), but as a spirited youth who comes of age during and comes to terms with troubled times. The onscreen talent never abates, as oppose to the offscreen talent, which, time and again, slips up, never glaringly, but enough to distance, to some degree or another, whether when it's holding back the storytelling's dramatic and structural momentum, or when it's bloating itself with sentimentality, and yet, the value of this subject matter, however limited, is done a serviceable bit of service, at least by Brian Percival, who keeps things lively enough to prevent the bland dry spells which admittedly works its way into many a film like this, and sometimes gets controlled enough in his dramatic storytelling to touch. Yes, the film is pretty touching at times, and while I wish resonance was much more consistent in this dramatically limited, but still potentially engrossing opus, the final product, through charm, backed by highlights in aesthetics and storytelling, endears decent.
When it's time to conclude another story in an important historical saga, the final product is secured as relatively underwhelming by the formulaic, watered down, sentimental and, of course, overlong interpretation of a story of limited intrigue, of which there is still enough for decent score work, fine art direction, a handsome visual style, and reasonably inspired performances, both on and off of the screen, to make "The Book Thief" yet another engaging account of the most shameful days in relatively recent German history, even though it could have been more.
2.75/5 - Decent
The film opens with a narration opining on death and the nature of humanity, and the film follows as a strong commentary on that. It is told with great earnest, featuring a perfectly arranged cast. The accolades in this case go largely to Geoffrey Rush, who has an old fashioned and folksy charisma and kindness that makes the film. The performance by Sophie Nelisse as Liesel is also strong, portraying a curiously precious young girl, with a distinct sense of emotional awareness. Thus, the dynamics between the characters in The Book Thief are very effectively executed, and endear us to the story and the resonate ending.
The film itself does feature a great deal of sentimentalism and, to some degree, some melodrama. At the same time, it's distinguished by a third act that goes in an unexpected direction, and a story that shows restraint. We don't see the entire horrors of Nazi Germany, but are given hints of its true nature. What we see is what Liesel experiences, and this is indicative of many German families at the time. This makes the film all the more effective, as a self contained story, not simply a fictionalized account set against an historical backdrop.
The film does come close to overstaying its welcome in the end, and the very last scene seems a bit too tidy, yet on a whole, it's a well told and an impactful film.
In this PG-13-rated war drama, young Liesel (Nelisse) finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others while the horrors of World War II Germany lie at her doorstep.
From the carefully constructed scene work to the beautifully shot cinematography to the safe re-telling of wartime atrocities, The Book Thief is a highly polished affair. Like his phenomenal cast, director Brian Percival shows all of the skill of a seasoned player. His adaptation of this YA novel aims at much more of audience than young adults, however. A rose-tinted view of Nazi Germany is what young and old filmgoers get, which doesn't serve anybody exceedingly well. Not letting the truth get in the way of the story, the film is good looking and smart...just not smart enough to broaden its audience.
Bottom line: Steal Away
Frequent Downton Abbey director Percivel frames the film as one would expect from such a drama; its lyrical and picturesque for the most part, again fitting for the story. The plot itself follows familiar beats, the drama veering from the oversentimental to poignant, and even with a few giggles. Again; disconcerting for a WW2 drama. Even moreso as the film winds to a close after an arguable overlong running time. It certainly packs an obvious emotional punch in contrast to the rest of the film, but it would be difficult for anyone beyond those with the coldest of hearts not to be swept up in what transpires.
The performances are all great though; the English spoken German accents doesn't always work, but Nelisse has great presence, Rush and Watson more than serviceable as Leisel's foster parents.
While at times it comes across as WW2-lite, and its tends to drag a little in spots because of it, The Book Thief is still a respectful film that will win over most audiences thanks to solid performances and an emotionally weighted story of youthful innocence that will appeal to a wide audience.