Director: Brian Percival
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nelisse, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch]
Rating: PG – Mild themes and violence
Release Date: 9 January, 2014
Stephen A Russell says: “Not having read Markus Zusak’s internationally renowned and New York Times bestselling novel The Book Thief, I can only assume he carried off this tale of a young book lover stifled by Nazi Germany during WWII with a great deal more heart and soul than this leaden big screen adaptation.
Adapted by Michael Petroni, who also mangled the literary to film translations of C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, Emmy-winning Downtown Abbey helmer Brian Percival directs.
Hampered from the very outset by a mawkishly intrusive narration by none other that an unnamed but bleeding obvious Death (Roger Allam) that may have worked on the page but is laughably unwelcome here, we’re introduced to the plight of poor illiterate Liesel (Sophie Néllise). Given up by her birth mother for reasons that take a long time to reveal themselves, she endures the death of her younger brother before coming under the care of foster parents, the loving Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who teaches her to read after she’s mocked at school, and his cantankerous wife Rosa (Emily Watson).
Before long their quaintly depicted lives of poverty living under the shadow of swastika-laden flags in every window, are disrupted by the arrival of Jewish fugitive Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose father saved Hans during the war, so they promptly hide him in the basement. Liesel sparks up a friendship with Max that draws her away from her curious schoolmate Rudy, who is obsessed with Jesse Owens, the black track and field star who scored four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Max feeds her growing love of newfound words, gong so far as to whitewash a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf so that she can writer a new story over it, in another moment that may have worked for Zusak but is laboriously clunky here.
There’s never any real sense of drama, either in the hidden fugitive plot or in the wooden performances. Another infuriating tick is the complete inability of anyone involved to decide whether they’re actually supposed to be playing German or not. Some scenes, generally involving bad guys, are spoken in German with subtitles, but for the majority of the time we make do with dodgy accents and occasional spurts of German word used for emphasis. Some of the cast don’t even bother with the dodgy accents.
Even when the Nazis do show up, there’s an uncanny lack of danger to proceedings. When bombs fall, bodies are brought out of the rubble in pristine condition, further exasperating with the film’s complete lack of internal logic. This is 1938 Germany played as fairy tale, as if the big bad wolf never really stood a chance, and that’s frankly insulting to the memories of so many who lost their lives.”
Rotten Tomatoes says: “A bit too safe in its handling of its Nazi Germany setting, The Book Thief counters its constraints with a respectful tone and strong performances.”
InDaily says: “The events of World War II are a confronting chapter in humanity’s history, and director Percival handles this emotional topic with great respect, expertly bringing to life Zusak’s touching tale of courage and kindness.”
Sydney Morning Herald says: “The film, from English television director Brian Percival, uses the fantastic as a way of removing horror, rather than accentuating it. Very bad things happen on the periphery of the story, but they never quite intrude into the world of Liesel. Children do perceive their circumstances differently, but the sheer weight of history hangs uneasily over the film’s premise.”