Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s esteemed novel The Book Thief looks like it should be a classic piece of Oscar-baiting cinema. A cast with pedigree complimenting a worthy-as-hell period tale of family drama and death set against the backdrop of the horrors of the Second World War. The fact that this has only received one nomination, in the category of Best Original Score, suggests that something has gone amiss.
Roger Allam’s luxurious vocals get us off to a promising start as Death announces his interest in the young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse), an illiterate German girl bereft of a younger brother and spirited away from an incapable mother into the care of foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). The Reaper’s depressingly sound advice is not to panic when your time is up, you should face the music with some stoicism because it’s an inescapable fact of life that we’re all heading towards the grave. Sadly, this morbidly interesting opening salvo is diluted fairly rapidly as the story settles into a friendly, cosy, decidedly non-threatening, diet-war mode.
Hans begins the process of helping Liesel learn to read, which is hampered somewhat by the outbreak of conflict and a new-found interest in the presumably expensive hobby of incinerating paperbacks. Liesel forms a friendship with classmate, Rudy, a blond-haired, blue-eyed poster boy for the master race and the two join the swelling ranks of the Hitler Youth even as Hans and Rosa harbour a fugitive Jew in the basement which doubles as Liesel’s study.
“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” You desperately want to shout this down Percival’s ear as any semblance of threat is pushed into the margins of a film which feels unimpressively and unfairly safe. Liesel’s burgeoning literacy and love of the written word opens her eyes to the death that is starting to once again creep into her own life story, but even as soldiers raid houses and baying mobs salute swastikas and cosh shopkeepers, there’s little, if any, feeling of urgency or peril.
Paradoxically, it feels as if Brian Percival has slimmed the book down too much, whilst failing to trim away any of the excess. The BookThief feels bizarrely cluttered, yet empty; full of little bits of too many narrative threads that never amount to anything on their own or tied together.
When Death returns to the story to try to shake you out of the comfort zone into which you’ve been creeping from about the first fifteen minutes; the result is alarmingly uninvolving. It turns out his advice was sort of prophetic. It’s not hard to face the curtain with a calm head when you’ve had very little reason to get excited.
20th Century Fox
26th February 2014 (UK)
Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch