Wednesday, 8 January 2014
FILM REVIEW: THE BOOK THIEF
20th Century Fox Films
Similar to another 2013 film, Andrew Adamson's Mr. Pip, The Book Thief focusses on a young female protagonist who, in dark times -- Papuan civil unrest in Mr. Pip; World War II in The Book Thief -- finds solace and salvation in literature.
And similar to that other film (based on the novel by New Zealander, Lloyd Jones), The Book Thief, adapted from a YA novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, has a peculiar hook: where Mr. Pip's heroine disappeared into an imaginary world inspired by Dickens, the events in Zusak's story are narrated by Death.
For whatever reason, Death (voiced by Roger Allem) has taken a particular interest in young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) who, after the death of her younger brother and arrest of her Communist mother, is sent to live with the well-meaning though rough-edged couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson); Hans the soft touch to Rosa's stern facade.
It's with this couple and in their German village (the production design more storybook than gritty realism) that Liesel will not only learn to read but find a makeshift family; not just with Hans and Rosa, but with Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish man who comes to hideout in their basement, and inspiring Liesel in her literary pursuits; and with Rudy (Nico Liersch), the neighbour boy and classmate of Liesel who is smitten with her the moment he lays eyes on her.
Directed by Brian Percival, best known for his work on TV's Dowton Abbey, and adapted by Michael Petroni, The Book Thief proceeds episodically and rather ploddingly. There's no great drama in this war time tale -- other than the possible discovery of Max in the basement -- as Liesel discovers both the wonder and power of the written word in a time where the burning of books is encouraged and individual thought is not.
Still, Sophie Nelisse is an engaging heroine even if the French-Canadian actress (so good in 2011's Monsieur Lazhar) isn't so confident with her English (this is the type of WWII film where everyone speaks English with varying approximations of a German accent). It's left to Rush and Watson to do the heavy lifting, and they do so with the lightest of touches.
Markus Zusak's novel was a best-seller and no doubt fans of the book will enjoy this presumably faithful if uninspired adaptation (not having read The Book Thief, I can't attest to the film's fidelity with regards to story or spirit). And in spite of the emotional ending -- not so much hard-earned as extracted -- one can only surmise that whatever Death (with his infrequent and only mildly distracting narration) found so fascinating in this story was mostly lost in the translation from page to screen.