The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>The Book Thief</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - The Book Thief

A young refugee girl is adopted by a German couple at the outbreak of World War II.

Directed by: Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Roger Allam, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer

A refugee from an unnamed Eastern European country, young Liesel (Nélisse) arrives in 1938 Germany, where she is taken in by foster parents Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Watson). Unfamiliar with the language, Liesel at first struggles to fit in but grows to love her new parents and befriends a local boy, Rudy (Liersch). When war breaks out, a strange young man arrives at the home of Hans and Rosa, taking up residence in their basement. Liesel befriends the young man, Max (Schnetzer), who along with Hans, encourages Liesel's love of books and writing.
It seems odd that on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, cinema screens are playing host to a crop of WWII movies. Following on from Stalingrad and The Monuments Men we have The Book Thief, an adaptation of the popular novel by Marcus Zusak. I can't speak for how faithfully Zusak's book has been represented, but Brian Percival's movie is a hot mess, lacking a sufficient dramatic hook and suffering from a plodding structure. That said, it's a film I quite enjoyed in that lazy Sunday afternoon matinee kind of way.
All of the central characters are likable and the chemistry between Rush and the precocious Nélisse is the film's greatest strength; their scenes together are thoroughly charming. Rush comes from that breed of actor that can really make you instantly warm to the character they're portraying. Nélisse is one of those European child performers who understand that child acting is about acting like a child, not a small adult, as is the case with so many of the child stars that populate Hollywood movies. We've seen an abundance of great child performances in the last couple of years and Nélisse's turn here is up there with Wadjda's Waad Mohammed and The Kid With a Bike's Thomas Doret.
All the goodwill generated by The Book Thief''s performers can't paper over the cracks in its plot though. There are numerous problems with Percival's movie. Firstly, the narration by 'Death', which may have played a large role in the source novel but here feels like a ridiculous afterthought, one which plucks you out of the story whenever it makes an appearance. Secondly, the use of language; Percival can't decide whether characters should speak English or subtitled German and it seems odd how Liesel could have learned to speak fluent German when she can't read or write. Thirdly, despite the WWII setting, there's zero tension and we never feel anyone is in any real danger, not even the young Jew hiding in the basement, who oddly seems to have arrived at his new home completely undetected. Lastly, the promised thievery of literature is barely touched on.
If you're willing to overlook its many flaws, The Book Thief is, thanks to its cast, a charming watch. I'm just not sure it's meant to be.

Eric Hillis