As he did on paper, Death (Roger Allam, TV’s The Thick of It) narrates The Book Thief, director Brian Percival (Downtown Abbey) and writer Michael Petroni’s (The Rite) film adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel. He watches over the formative years of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse, Monsieur Lazhar) as she finds shelter with the kindly Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush, The Best Offer) and stern Rosa (Emily Watson, Anna Karenina) from the increasing troubles of Germany on the cusp of the Second World War. His tone is sorrowful but spirited, cognisant of his role of finality, but always empathetic toward those bound for his eternal embrace.
Liesel tries to cope with her new foster family, first seeking solace in learning to read, and then in the world that opens in her imagination as she devours every written word she can – and as procured by any means possible. Alas, the film never finds the appropriate pitch to match its unusual story-telling source, careening from poignant to playful. Harsh and horrible developments continue to intrude upon the growing girl’s fragile existence, heightened when the charismatic Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer, Happy Town) is secreted into her midst and away from the persecuting Nazi regime. The surrounding feature wears its sentiments on its sleeve in an inherently heartbreaking situation, yet its whimsical tendencies – the personification of death among them – lighten its purported resonance.
On the page, Zusak’s youth-oriented construct worked; given greater room to move, the affections felt by the ultimate symbol of our end for an innocent struggling against all odds were earned. On screen, everything is stated, but the film says nothing – other than “I hate Hitler”, which it literally yells. The brutal reality of history is swept away in a sea of pleasantries and obvious dialogue, anything but the most clichéd of content constantly covered like the incessantly falling snow. Everything looks and sounds the fable-like part, the picturesque cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (One Chance) and the tear-swelling score by John Willams (Lincoln) included. The surface remains abundant with the emotive flourishes of lingering looks and laments, but underneath rings hollow, comfortable with boilerplate scenes and rote reactions.
Where the film does flirt with effectiveness is in its cast, or, more accurately, in the gifted Nélisse’s strong rapport with her co-stars. From the instant father-daughter bond with Rush, to the warming of Watson to her presence, to the affinity with both Vandenburg and Nico Liersch (Blackout) as her smitten best friend, she enlightens, arrests and endeavours to add depth when it is otherwise absent. In her nuanced performance, the Grim Reaper’s soft spot for Liesel is understandable, albeit still mawkishly handled. A large burden of likeability is placed on the fledgling actor’s shoulders, one she handles better than all other components of the Holocaust-lite material.
For all the film’s emphatic efforts to melt the hearts of the audience, it simply takes more than saddling honeyed narration with the label of mortality and morality, then thrusting a bright-eyed child into an idealised version of human cruelty at its worst – all while wearing a smile – to elicit hope. That authenticity is far from the objective of The Book Thief’s big screen incarnation isn’t surprising; however more than a swift, safe slick of overemphasised earnestness could have offered an improvement on the technically proficient but only would-be touching end result.
Rating: 2 stars out of 5
The Book Thief
Director: Brian Percival
US/Germany, 2013, 131 mins
Release date: January 9