When a film is narrated by Death himself, you know it’s not likely to be a laugh-a-minute sort of film. “The Book Thief” – a cinema feature debut by Brian Percival – starts impressively. Death stalks the skies muttering truisms about life and mortality. Decending throught the clouds we see a steam train chuffing through a snowy European landscape. Decending through the train’s smoke trail we enter the carriage and see Death claim his first victim of the film, all to John William’s luscious (and Oscar nominated) score. Unfortunately, this memorable opening scene doesn’t translate into the rest of the film.
The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel: a young girl in late 30’s Nazi Germany, abandoned by her communist mother into the safer hands of an older childless couple – Hans and Rosa – played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The illiterate Liesel is taught to read by Hans and this fosters a burning love of books – in stark contrast to the love of burning books of the Nazis. The film centres around her relationship not only with her new adoptive parents, but with her best school friend Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) and with Max (Ben Schnetzer) – a jewish friend of the family who brings both a brotherly companionship and great danger into Liesel’s world.
The German village life is nicely portrayed and the everyday activity counterpointed against the bizzarre and terrifying goings on of historical events around them. But unfortunately, the story seems to be all over the place. I don’t know the “beloved” and “critically acclaimed” novel by Markus Zusak to know whether it is the source material or the adapted screenplay (by Michael Petroni) that is at fault. But in my eyes, the story just doesn’t go in any satisfactory or coherent direction. I was expecting it to be more of a harrowing Holocaust style picture, but it really wasn’t (this might be attractive to many viewers). Just when you thought the film would go off in an interesting direction it veered off again down a different path. As such, it lacked any real tension or (apart from one scene) sense of danger. To me, it was just… “Meh”.
The script is not helped by some clunky lines of dialogue of the “Liesel, Liesel – you are growing so big” variety, and uttered by Rush and Watson in a manner reminiscent of Olivier’s execreble Jewish turn in “The Jazz Singer”. Add to that a brutal ending (prepare yourself) of the “Atonement” variety, and you end up with a rather unsatisfactory and disappointing result.
The two junior leads – Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch – acquit themselves well, and their touching scenes together are the best parts of the film. Ben Schnetzer’s acting role as Max though was less convincing: not a great performance in my eyes.
I also spare a thought for young actor Nozomi Linus Kaisar. He must have been so thrilled to go and see this flick with his parents on the big screen, only to see his character in the end credits as “Fat Faced Goalie”. It must have done wonders for his self esteem: what was the director thinking?
Overall, I would suggest this is not a film to go out of your way to see at the cinema: wait for a rainy Sunday afternoon on the box for this one.
Fad Rating: FFf.