August 29, 2014

The Book Thief Caught Red-Handed

 

Director Brian Percival’s film fails to live up to the hype.

PHOTO BY JULES HEATH

<i>The Book Thief</i> Caught Red-Handed

Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) reads to Max (Ben Schnetzer) who’s hiding in her home in The Book Thief.

Unlike its source material, The Book Thief is easy viewing. Based on the 2005 worldwide bestseller by Marcus Zusak, the film tells the story of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), an adopted child sent to live with foster parents (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson) in Germany during the height of Nazism. World War II may serve as the story backdrop but the heart of the film is Liesel’s relationship with her new family and her insatiable appetite for books and knowledge. As history and heartache ensue, the lesson at the end of the film is that a life well lived can (at least temporarily) outshine death.

Therein lies the problem with The Book Thief. Director Brian Percival has managed to make a life (even a fictional one) so rich appear so bland. Condensing a 700-odd-page tome into a two-hour film usually means delicate themes and motifs flatten out to plodding exposition. Unfortunately, this film succumbs to such compression. Michael Petroni (The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader) does a solid effort in writing the story while slightly missing the mark. Sure, there are Nazi’s and book burnings but it appears as an afterthought as the main characters never seem to be in any real peril. The dynamic between Liesel and her newly found family are heavily stressed, which is good; but without a legitimate antagonist there is no extra emotional investment into character; which is bad. For a film that espouses the power of words, a few more on depth and exposition couldn’t hurt.

The same criticism for Petroni could be said for director Brian Percival. The film is certainly life affirming at the cost of feeling manufactured. Given the film’s setting, there is so much to content to mine emotion from, why crank the emotion full tilt on only one facet? If it’s the film’s intent to find beauty in the ugliest of moments of humanity, we need to see more ugly to truly appreciate the beauty.

Sturdy acting saves the film from becoming a Hallmark Classic reserved for cable TV. Geoffrey Rush adds much needed deft and delicacy as he is Hans Hubermann rather than playing Hans Hubermann. Emily Watson is the unsung hero of the film as Rosa, Hans’s wife.

The actress’ no-frills performance is the most believable of the lot.

Sophie Nelisse has potential but her role as Liesel is underwhelming. The actress was cast for the role based on her performance in the fantastic Monsieur Lazhar, so it would’ve made sense to see her explore some darker territory knowing that she has the chops for it. Alas, another missed opportunity.

The Book Thief is nothing more than sentiment by numbers. Stuck somewhere between Heidi and The Diary of Anne Frank, the film excels at neither.