Based on the bestselling novel by Markus Zusak, there’s already a gigantic, established fan base anticipating the cinematic adaptation of The Book Thief – however Brian Percival’s retelling of this enticing tale really is cinematic: so much so in fact, that it detracts from the wonderment of the original novel, and it frustratingly falls for stereotype on occasion too.
Sophie Nélisse takes on the lead role as Liesel, a young girl who is separated from her mother during the Second World War and adopted by a sympathetic husband and wife, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). What the latter lacks in kindness and generosity, the former makes up for with his charismatic affability. Liesel is not the only person they’ve taken in either, as they’re sheltering the Jewish Max (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement. Liesel and Max soon become close friends, and to distract them both from the horrors of the war-zone outside, they become engulfed in literature, as the young girl steals novels from the Nazis, alongside her friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) to share with the withering fugitive.
It’s such a shame that Percival gives in to cliché in this picture, as rather than get immersed in the tale and this world, instead it’s all too conspicuously theatrical, with some scenes provoking a rolling of the eyes. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see this story presented from a German perspective, as we’re so often treated to films from the viewpoint of the English or American soldiers. It’s a shame in some ways that the legitimacy of the piece is compromised by hiring an Australian and a Brit to play Hans and Rosa, respectively, but that doesn’t take away from two stunning performances. Where Rush is so endearing and likeable, Watson can be very stern and unforgiving, yet it’s a remarkable turn for the actress, as her empathetic nature is always there for us to see.
On the whole, The Book Thief is dealing with severe, profound and poignant themes in an all too indelicate manner. Percival struggles to strike that balance in creating a film that appeals to a younger crowd, and yet doesn’t severely dumb down the horrors of war – unlike The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which managed to do so effortlessly for instance. The film suffers a result, as you just hope for something a little more sincere and impactful from this narrative.