Release: Friday, November 8, 2013 (limited)
The talented, young Sophie Nélisse steps into this significantly bleak lead role as the orphaned Liesel Meminger after her mother leaves her with a German couple during the escalation of World War II. Burdened with an extraordinarily trying existence, Leisel’s pain soon will become your own as you watch her life deteriorate as the movie progresses. Make no mistake: there may be a child actress who’s going to carry the story, but this isn’t exactly candy and unicorns we’re dealing with here. There are no neat bows to tie things off nicely as gifts or holiday surprises. There are just books.
Books and bad government. The Book Thief‘s set against 1940s Germany, as Hitler’s oppressive regime continued to tighten its grip around the necks of everything European, and when life for certain people was at its most intolerable. In the case of wide-eyed Leisel, in fear of getting her daughter also killed her mother, a Russian Communist, abandons her on the doorstep of Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Of course, the girl sees this as nothing but a betrayal, naturally, as she can’t comprehend something like the possibility of getting shipped off to a Concentration Camp at her age. Her new life with her foster parents seems depressing and strange, particularly as her mother is not exactly the warm and fuzzy type.
Rush, on the other hand, plays a kind old man whose care and concern for this troubled child is as evident as his appreciation for the accordion. Saddled with great loneliness, Leisel would desperately like to learn how to read and write since getting publicly humiliated at school one day, and since she doesn’t find much else in the town that interests her.
There is a blonde boy, Rudy Steiner (played by Nico Liersch), who tries to capture Leisel’s attention by showing off his flirt, his athleticism and his political affiliation (seriously, I had no idea Hitler Youths were so naturally inclined to running away — it’s sort of ironic, if you think about it). He’s more or less unsuccessful for the longest time as all Leisel wants to do is read. The only thing she’s brought with her from home is a single, black book, which reminds her of her brother. It’s a simple acting of collecting that will fuel her will to stay alive and try to remain positive, despite the destruction and chaos all around her.
What begins as a habit of reading to her Papa, trying to figure out what certain words mean, evolves into full-fledged obsession with the written word when Leisel meets a strange, quiet woman named Ilsa (Barbara Auer) who shows her an entire library of books. One by one Leisel takes these books and brings them home to read quickly.
An interesting development has rendered her not the only ‘guest’ in the Hubermann’s modest home. A debt from Hans’ past leaves the couple with no option but to shelter a young Jewish boy (Ben Schnetzer) on the run, confining him to their basement so no outsider can see him. So Leisel’s inadvertently picked up a roommate and now enjoys reading to him, showing this newcomer what she has learned.
Reading as a thematic element is used fascinatingly throughout Brian Percival’s sophomore directorial effort. Reading serves many purposes to Leisel: first as a tool to learn and blend in with society; later it blossoms into a source of passion for the young girl who’s torn between wanting to find her real mother again, and staying with her foster parents; later still it becomes a survival guide for her and the townspeople as the effects of war take their toll on Germany. The importance of being literate becomes more symbolic as the stakes are ever raised. Unfortunately, not a great deal of interest is raised with them, however.
What The Book Thief lacks is a significant ‘oomph.’ Like the scores of atomic weapons raining down over Europe from American bomber planes, there should be jumps and uncomfortable scenes aplenty throughout a movie set in such a harrowing time in history. Instead far too much time is invested in the act of reading itself, slowing down the pace of the film to a merciless crawl. Save for two scenes — one in which is quite unnerving as we crowd into a subterranean shelter with everyone and listen to the bombs exploding closer and more violently throughout the world above us — the entire film is bereft of the drama one would expect to find in a story about the persecution of an entire people.
The best thing that can be said about the way in which the director chooses to handle the adaptation of Australian Markus Zusak’s novel might be that it beautifully recreated this dark period. While Leisel’s plight is one deserving attention, her story seems only to fit in as a small jigsaw piece in this never-ending puzzle of why any of this genocide and the subsequent additional loss of life through war had to happen in the first place. Of course, there’s really no obvious answer to that question (if one exists at all), and that’s exactly the kind of thing that makes The Book Thief, an otherwise decent film to look at, such a frustrating chronicle.
Despite the gloominess in places, this is far too safe a tone to make much of a splash in the greater world of film. And it’s certainly not the Oscar-contender it first appeared to be in the trailers, though there are some lines of a thought-provoking nature dotted around the place.
Recommendation: Becoming dangerously close to being boring in several spots, The Book Thief prefers a quieter, more intimate examination of a brutal period in European history by using one girl’s tragic journey as the vehicle with which we travel through the emotions. Extreme patience is required for this one, as it picks a plodding pace and never really lets up on that until the end. It features good performances, but nothing extraordinary and the bleakness at times might prove wearisome for any who haven’t read the book before watching.
Running Time: 127 mins.
Quoted: “I am haunted by humans.”
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