The story of a little girl growing up in Nazi Germany during World War 2, The Book Thief is not an action story or a love story, but a story about life and what it is to live.
If that’s a bit deep, basically the ‘book thief’ is a young German girl called Liesel Meminger who is taken from her communist mother to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann in Munich. When she is adopted by the Hubermanns, Liesel cannot read or write and has nothing to her name but a stolen book and a photograph of her lost brother. The Book Thief follows Liesel as she grows up, learns to read and write, and makes new friends and enemies.
When I say The Book Thief is not an action story, it is just a series of small, seemingly insignificant events which join together to become significant; individually they are uninteresting, slow and do nothing to create a sense action or adventure. Although I will admit it is a very raw and truthful depiction of Nazi Germany, there is no denying it is rather boring. But screenwriter Michael Petroni shouldn’t take the blame for this, as his screenplay is a diligent reconstruction of the plot of Markus Zusak’s novel of the same title, lacking only in the intricate detail and unusual style of the novel, which makes it a challenge to adapt for the screen, and I can’t criticise Petroni for rising to the challenge as successfully as I think was possible. For example, the novel is narrated by Death, and the screenplay cleverly weaves in extracts of this narration to cement the individual events of the story together, making a cohesive narrative.
I hasten to continue comparing the film to the book, as it’s a common trap for people who have read a book before seeing its big-screen adaptation, so one last comparison before I move onto talking about the film as its own entity: the characters. The characters are actually much more likeable in the film than in the novel, which I think is down to the detail in Zusak’s novel and the difficulty of translating these ins-and-outs of the characters’ personalities to the screen. They are helped along by the performances of the frankly unexciting cast which features 13-year-old Sophie Nélisse as Liesel Meminger, alongside Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and Roger Allam as the voice of Death. In some ways, however, I think the casting was very clever: it would be all too easy to cast huge A-listers like Robert De Niro or Sean Connery as Leisel’s rebellious adoptive Papa, Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), but the big names would distract from the subtlety of the characters and their story.
Director Brian Percival (director of Downton Abbey) has done a good job capturing the quotidian feel of the story, expertly matching the pace of direction to that of the script and leading the viewer to notice the subtleties of the story without noticing that they’re noticing them. Percival cleverly uses facial expressions to add emotion, but unfortunately the range of expression that the cast produces is rather lacking, particularly Sophie Nélisse instead leaves the audience confused as to exactly what she is feeling. The overall feel of the film is spot-on, with wonderful sets and costumes transporting you back to Nazi Germany, but the magic is occasionally broken when obviously cheap CGI brings you plummeting back onto your sofa with a bump.
Date Rating: 2/5
Your mister will be reaching for his phone out of boredom after five minutes of The Book Thief; not only does it lack action, it lacks comedy, romance and cars, in other words it has no redeeming features in the eyes of the stereotypical bloke.
Parent-friendly rating: 5/5
Your parents will probably like this more than you do, with its nostalgic atmosphere and realistic plot I would say it’s certainly one for the more mature viewer. Despite the main character being an 11-year-old girl, it isn’t really about her: it’s about values and life.
Okay, so a love of books may be considered ‘girly’, combine this with the welcome absence of car chases, over-the-top explosions and sex and I could say it’s a film for the girls, but I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend it for a girly night in – unless you’re looking to have a good cuddle and a cry, that is.
Watch if you liked: War Horse, Sweet Home Alabama, The Reader
Keep an eye out for my review of the novel, The Book Thief, next week in the Culture Column.