The biggest question The Book Thief faces is to wonder why it's a story worth telling at all. Being a World War II film, it ticks off plenty of the expected boxes and plays heavily on the horrors of life amid air raids, fear of speaking your opinion in the open or even smiling. It has its share of villains, aggressive speeches, Jews hiding in basements and a core set of protagonists with large hearts and strong performances. You can probably quickly rattle off ten such WWII films that accomplish the exact same goal, some better than others, some great and some you'd prefer never hearing from again. What is it that sets one film apart from the next?
"The Book Thief" is a 20th Century Fox release, directed by Brian Percival and is rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material. The running time is .
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Characters will pop up to serve some small purpose, such as a young German antagonist whose only purpose seems to be to either bully two of the film's leads or remind us (as if we'd forgotten) this is early 1940s Germany we're living in. At one point I scribbled down on my notepad, "Can't get away from the ugliness," as director Brian Percival seemed to struggle against telling the story he wanted to tell and injecting the necessary WWII cliches he felt needed to be included.
The story follows a young girl named Liesel, played wonderfully by Sophie Nélisse with large sympathetic eyes and a heart-warming smile. Liesel has just buried her younger brother and her mother had to give her up for reasons that become vaguely clear, but are never explicitly mentioned. We watch these early portions of the story play out as a gentle voice attempts to ease us into the story. We realize almost immediately this is the voice of Death (Roger Allam) and I say it "attempts to ease us into the story" because it never quite feels right, largely given the narration isn't all throughout the film. Instead Death shows up at the beginning and end and at a strange, out-of-nowhere moment somewhere near the middle as if to remind us "he" was even part of the story. I guess it was a good move because I had forgotten.
Liesel meets her two foster parents Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) and is almost immediately befriended by the little blonde boy next door, Rudy (Nico Liersch). The way the story is approached it's clear it's not a story that's going to be hitting us with dark truths and constant somber tones, but instead a melodrama with laughter and an anticipated level of pain.
Clearly, with Death narrating the whole thing and how much he stresses we can't escape death, that is somehow going to be a thematic thread. Just as is a focus on the beauty of life and constant reminders of the importance of humanity and civility. I'm not sure the film earns all these themes, but they're quite obvious nonetheless.
The Book Thief's failure to live up to these ideas is due to not remaining faithful to its narrative. Death's narration becomes an afterthought once we begin following the life of Liesel and the two end up battling for thematic supremacy.
Upon burying her brother, the gravedigger drops his "Gravedigger's Handbook", Liesel snatches it up and carries it with her despite the fact she can't read a word. Yet, literate or not, the power that book holds is immeasurable and once Liesel begins to read her passion for stories and for words becomes the narrative's driving force. Yet, the film seems determined to wedge in its WWII cliches and thematic determination on focusing on the arbitrary nature of death, culminating in a final act that plays like it's from another film.
For much of the duration, each scene plays no different than the next. There's no pulse as much as it's slow and steady to the point I started wondering, more than once, "Is this the end?" The narrative didn't seem to add up to anything because it couldn't remain focused on one thing, the one thing that worked, its characters.
Nélisse, Rush and Watson are fantastic, getting along as family brought together through love and necessity. Nico Liersch is a bright ball of energy as Rudy and while Ben Schnetzer's introduction to the story as Max, a Jewish man from Hans' past, is just one more piece that seems haphazardly tossed into the mix and is just as easily discarded down the line, his time on screen was well spent.
John Williams' score is also worthy of note. I remember thinking about midway through it sounded like a score Alexandre Desplat would have done, thanks to its subtleties and heavy reliance on piano, whereas Williams so often goes much bigger. Williams, however, has been able to dial it back his last couple of outings, both here and on Lincoln last year to wonderful results.
As for Percival, his direction clearly managed to capture some great performances, but the size of this story seemed to get the better of him, either that or he struggled under an obligation to deliver a two hour film rather than a three hour version where so many scenes didn't seem rushed and abandoned.
Judging The Book Thief on its performances and my appreciation for how it managed to show how something as small as a book can become so important, I would be falling head over heels to recommend it. Unfortunately, the entire package doesn't completely work. It will tug at your heartstrings and Nélisse's big doe eyes will beg for your tears and will likely get them, but when it comes to the question I asked at the beginning, "Why is this a story worth telling at all?" I'm not sure everyone came to the table with the same answer.