Starring: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Directed by: Brian Percival (“A Boy Called Death”)
Written by: Michael Petroni (“The Rite”)
In an adaptation of the immensely popular novel “The Book Thief” tells the story of Liesel (Sophia Nelisse), a young girl living in Nazi Germany. When Liesel is separated from her birth mother, she moves in with her new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel is illiterate, and becomes fascinated with reading after finding a book in an unexpected place. As World War II breaks out, Hans and Rosa bring in Jewish family friend Max (Ben Schnetzer) to hide from German soldiers. Soon, Liesel begins to form a special bond with Max.
One of the strengths of “The Book Thief” is its performances. As a relative newcomer, Nelisse is strong and holds her own against more experienced actors. Best among the cast is Rush, who is a great presence as a father to Liesel and quite funny in the films lighter moments. As the counterpart of the laid back Rush, Watson’s uptight character plays nicely as the more complicated of the parents.
“The Book Thief” is somewhat delicate in its handling of the Holocaust. Rather than making the film about the Holocaust itself, it is merely a story that takes place within that context. Because of that construction, a lot of the impact of the atrocities is lost or absent altogether. We see Nazi flags, book burnings and the occasional rounding up of the Jewish people through a muted and pale color palate, but there is no sense of how truly terrible the conditions were. It makes sense given the target audience, yet interestingly enough, the film deals with some darker themes and plot points while at the same time feeling tame with its contextual elements. At the center of “The Book Thief” are relationships between its characters which vary in success. The relationship between Liesel and Max is supposed to be one of the more important ones in the film, but feels underdeveloped and a touch forced.
Perhaps most troubling about “The Book Thief” is that it is a movie that lacks a true climax. The film builds and then, without much warning, deflates in a series of false endings and jam-packed, overly-dramatic beats that have no room to breathe as the film stumbles to a finish. There is no grace to these moments, as director Brian Percival (“A Boy Called Death”) seems to just regurgitate an ending to get the film over as soon as possible. The decision leaves the whole thing feeling piecemeal and unsatisfying.
While there is strength in the acting, “The Book Thief”, unfortunately, fails to connect on many of its major themes, chiefly those of the importance of books to Liesel. That makes it difficult to connect to the film as an entire piece. Coupled with an ending that feels haphazardly pasted together, “The Book Thief” can’t help but feel incomplete.