DIR: Brian Percival • WRI: Michael Petroni • Ryan Engle PRO: Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt • DOP: Florian Ballhaus • ED: John Wilson • MUS: John Williams • DES: Alec Hammond • CAST: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Adaptations run the gauntlet from faithful recreations to loose inspiration, and can get stuck in the quagmire of original fan opinion and input. While Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief may not have the fanatical following of some novelistic journeys it is nonetheless a beloved book that touched many readers’ hearts on its publication in 2005. It was also a work that lent itself to a filmic version: narrated by Death, addressing Nazi occupation, stellar protagonists with human foibles…it was a movie waiting to happen. Now that it has arrived to cinema it suffers somewhat from the childhood-versus-Nazi effect, but successfully brings the book’s playful dalliance with tragedy onscreen.
Director Brian Percival takes a step away from comfortable television territory, but doesn’t stray too far from his Downton Abbey roots in the set-up of the story, with candle-lit conversations and sweeping outdoor shots. Roger Allam’s dulcet Death introduces us to the story as we dip dramatically through clouds to find ourselves on a train with Liesel, a young girl making her way to a new family with her already-absent broken mother. As the human who fascinates Death, the living soul that distracts him from his dour job of leading others from the world, the casting of Liesel was hugely important – and after a considerable search which gave the role its deserved significance, Sophie Nélisse was found. A 13-year old French-Canadian actress, Sophie imbues Liesel with all the heart and feeling this staggeringly wise little girl needed to be taken from pages to screen. And there lies the saving grace of the movie – yes, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are picture-perfect as her foster parents, one sunshine-light and the other ‘cloaked in thunder’, but it is Sophie who hypnotically draws the eye in every scene, imbuing the movie with such depth of feeling it’s impossible to look away. Her journey through reading, beginning with a gravedigger’s manual and then consuming tales with a voracious appetite, shows the power of words in dealing with horrific reality.
Much like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, this is a Nazi-light version of the Second World War, where slight nods are made to concentration camps and Hitler, but the majority is as seen through a child’s eyes – peripheral and mostly ignorable. This makes The Book Thief a good introduction to German experiences of the War for school-aged children, and certainly the film follows that line through Liesel’s friendship with both young Rudy (Nico Liersch) and older Max (Ben Schnetzer). Max is a Jewish acquaintance who seeks refuge in their cellar, putting the family in danger but opening Liesel up to the possibilities of peaceful revolt – his influence from the book is underplayed in the film, but the overall effect on Liesel is much the same. Rudy is another perfect casting choice – though perhaps it is just that children will always be more interesting than adults in situations like these. His startling Aryan features look almost terrifying when dressed in Nazi colours, but his childishness and light shine through at every moment – giving the scenes where he and Liesel talk and play much beauty and force.
While by no means a fantastic film, it is a very enjoyable trip into a pretty basic story. What hoists it above the parapet is the performances and, of course, John Williams’ didactic score which leads you from giddiness to tears at the flick of an experienced baton. A family movie overall, it is a nice opening for children to the lives of those their own age throughout Nazi occupation and, while avoiding the more horrible truths of that time, it provides a springboard for further conversation on the eventual fate of so many. Sometimes hovering too much on cliché, The Book Thief is nonetheless a simple tale told well, a tragic family story brought from ink to screen with excellent performances by its beautiful cast.
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Book Thief is released on 28th February 2014