The Book Thief – Highly polished, but by no means admirable
The Book Thief
Sunswept Entertainment, US
UK Release: 26th February 2014
Director Brian Percival
Producer Karen Rosenfelt, Ken Blancato
Screenwriter Michael Petroni
Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus
Cast Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch
The problem with The Book Thief is that it feels as though Brian Percival (known for his work on Downton Abbey) has narrowed the whole story to the confinements of a stage play. Okay, one can still make staging methods effective (take Dial M for Murder), but the way the camera moves, the actors enter right to left, the design shuffles as time goes by, all feels robotic and even oppressive. There is a great war going on outside, agreed this film isn’t directly intended to expose the war effort, but to signify the unconceivable act of the Nazis in true force one might need to dampen the glamorization of this storytelling.
The structure of the film is designed in such a way that the final act is alive, theoretically, with all the acts. At least, you can be sure to be awoken by the final 30 minutes of tailored clichés interweaving disaster and relief. I can admire the day-to-day life of our book thief Liesel Meminger (played by Sophie Nélisse), the core of the story, and her fascination with what lies beyond and above (she finds in the written word). This is, in fact, the most enjoyable aspect of the film, not to mention how well Sophie Nélisse holds everything together with her perceptive performance. The Book Thief feels alive and then the final years of the war are crammed into one act, an act spreading an entire story arc, an arc that would be better suited to capturing a separate film. It was never going to be an easy book to adapt.
The film begins with the voice of death (narrated by Roger Allam), a voice instantly recognizable and a voice that will no doubt shadow the entire film. However, this voice seems irrefutably naïve to the story it is telling. It takes a nap for a few years before coming back and interrupting the film three quarters of the way through. The film has made every effort to immerse its audience only to be pulled out of the picture by the voice of death shrewdly reappearing, perhaps to remind us that there is indeed a war going on outside of the street where Liesel lives.
The cast is occupied with pleasantly accomplished performers (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson), however the Germanic approach of the film is inconceivable to any admirable performance. “Nein” is apparently a plausible word in the English language? My take would be that if you are going to speak any German, then I want to see the whole film in German. And, in fact, I would have very much loved to see this film in German. Part of the disposition from the horrors of the depicted reality is bred from the fact that our characters are reciting English (could you imagine watching Downfall in English?). Consequently, and for other reasons mentioned, this film doesn’t sink its claws deep enough. It balances on the rope of knotting together a less frightening past.
I must note that the ending is fatefully superfluous. The tracking of the camera, in a present day, past mature pictures of a prosperous Liesel is grossly implemented by an ostentatious white iMac pulling apart the skin of the entire screening before us. This concentrated product placement, led by the palpable apple logo, was scornful to the foundations of the story and was the only symbol reminiscent on my mind as I left the cinema. Couldn’t the final assemblies of the budget have come from elsewhere?
I wish to admire this film, but it doesn’t attempt the depth required of a child’s eyes on the horrors of a war; don’t look for such a powerful picture as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. There were moments in which I obtained a deep affection for the family, their love of the lost and found. Yet, I feel that all along I was perhaps searching for a different movie altogether.
Watch the trailer below: