There are times when you know that you should be 'feeling' more of what you're seeing on screen. When World War Two and the holocaust is concerned it should be a pre-requisite that you're submerged into the fear, malnourishment, or the knife's edge of waging an internal war between your own beliefs and the demands of your amoral oppressive government; and unfortunately The Book Thief does not convey the power of the premise and setting.
Based on Australian Marcus Zusak's international best seller, The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) living in a provincial Germany in the years preceding World War Two until its conclusion. The initially illiterate Liesel, with the help of Hans, not only learns to read but to develop a passion for words when the Nazis were more interested in using literature as kindling. Having never read the book, I can't say how this film translates from the page to the screen, but as its name would suggest, The Book Thief showers praise on the transformative power of words to illuminate and support you in times when everything about your environment is hostile.
There are some genuinely great insights into the German home-front and peaking beneath the veil of Nazism to reveal the rot of dissent for director Brian Percival and screen writer Michael Petroni to explore. However, the story’s implied imaginative escapes aren't projected for the audience to see (ala Mr Pip or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) you're simply hearing the characters read these inspiration words aloud. The novelty almost immediately wears off.
Sophie Nélisse, the lead child actor from the wonderful Monsieur Lazhar has to carry the entire film and convey her internal identity being shaped from her sponge like literature absorption. In the moments of character interaction there are some beautifully endearing and authentic moments; but her internal struggle just didn't make it past the pout. Nico Liersch's Rudy was a highlight. This son of a Nazi is a fleet-footed youngster that has a passion for running. One of the most affective scenes of the film had Rudy innocently impersonating his idol Jesse Owens by donning black face. When he's lambasted for his gesture, and then his selection of an idol, Rudy's innocence and genuine confusion is perfectly portrayed. He pleads with his father, "but Dad, he's the fastest MAN in the world!"
Geoffrey Rush's Hans is the perfect adoptive father in every single way. He's playful, patient and unwaveringly compassionate. Rush infuses Hans with his natural cheek and luminescence and makes the perfect role model for Liesel. Emily Watson's Rosa is a bulldog, snapping at any and every one for any and everything. Watson is frustratingly one dimensional here, despite her extremely telegraphed 'soft-side.' Ben Schnetzer's Max is a young Jewish man that Hans begins to shelter when he escapes from the ghetto. He's a young hopeful artistic type that yearns for physical freedom that can only be quenched by living vicariously through the lives of the characters and of Liesel - who he inspires to write. It’s a performance that doesn’t feverishly convey the fear or despair that you’ve come an orphaned Jewish young man, hiding to survive. Instead it feels as if he’s the bohemian artist sheltered from the gravity of the situation.
The Book Thief fails to weave the intimate magic on the page into a moving screen story. Instead of being warmed around this campfire you feel distant and cold; emotionally mute.
[rating=2] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Brian Percival Written by: Michael Petroni (based on the Markus Zusak) novel Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Roger Allam, Heike Makatsch,Julian Lehmann, Rainer Bock, Barbara Auer