Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – The Book Thief (Movie Review)

By Freda Cooper 25.02.2014

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! - Oscar nominations 2014

The Book Thief (UK Rating: 12A)

World War II is flavour of the month this February. George Clooney's The Monuments Men has marched in and marched out again, and now hot on its heels comes The Book Thief, set in war-time Germany and seen through the eyes of a young teenage girl. Set to open in UK cinemas on Wednesday, 26th February, Freda Cooper brings readers another edition of Lights, Camera, Action! to see how this shapes up.

Nine year old Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is sent to live with foster parents in a working class rural town at the start of World War II. On her way there, she steals a book, which leads her to learn to read and develop a love of literature that sustains her and her family during the hardship that war brings - and inspires the young Jewish man who shelters under the stairs in their home.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – The Book Thief (Movie Review)

Adapted from Markus Zusak's best-seller of the same name, The Book Thief has a tightrope to walk from the outset. Adapting a well-loved book is always a risky business and changes are almost inevitable, with the risk of alienating its legions of fans. In this instance, director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni have clearly tried hard to be as faithful as possible to the original. They have even gone as far as retaining the book's narrator, who is actually Death, voiced by the rich tones of actor Roger Allam. However, for a narrator - whoever it is - to be effective they need to be a regular, if not constant, presence: here he appears at the start and the end, but has little or nothing to say for the bulk of the story, making him an irrelevance. If he's meant to create a balance in the film between the worldly and the other-worldly, it doesn't come off.

The story is told through Liesel's eyes, with the bewilderment and naivety that goes with her age. The original book was written primarily for teenagers and that approach is maintained in the film, so as an introduction to World War II in Germany, The Book Thief works well. In fact, it could have an extended life as an educational film, yet for anybody over the age of 12 - 15, its depiction of the war is full of frustration. Its backdrop of book burnings, Jews being sent to concentration camps and Kristallnacht has remarkably little impact both on the audience and the characters. The main book burning in the film, which is preceded by a rally to celebrate Hitler's birthday, looks like a rather jolly get-together, while a procession of people carrying suitcases is all the audience sees of the transportations. Only the re-creation of Kristallnacht comes close to giving an impression of the realities of life in Germany at the time.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – The Book Thief (Movie Review)

Director Percival has an Emmy under his belt for directing popular TV show Downton Abbey and it's a style that he's transferred lock, stock, and bonfire to The Book Thief. There's a 'softness' about it, both in terms of its storytelling and the camerawork, but it's completely at odds with the circumstances of the story. Stepmother Rosa (Emily Watson) initially refuses to have anything to do with Liesel when she arrives, pronouncing her "dirty and smelly," yet she's immaculate, in her best clothes and with perfectly coiffed hair. She learns to read in a cellar that is, no doubt, cold and dank - Max (Ben Schnetzer) who shelters there eventually becomes ill as a result - yet it looks cosy and comfortable.

Percival clearly has an eye for a good cast, though, and his two experienced leads - Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson - put in solid, believable performances as a couple who the outside world think are polar opposites but, in private, are totally devoted to each other. Sophie Nelisse is appealing as the film's driving force, Liesel, without ever over-playing the innocence card.

Image for Feature | Lights, Camera, Action! – The Book Thief (Movie Review)

[score=6]The Book Thief makes life in wartime Germany look perilously close to a fairytale: despite the hardships of war, everybody seems well fed and healthy, and the snowy, winter landscape has never looked more immaculate. It's not without moments of insight and tenderness but, ultimately, the backdrop to the story is pushed so far into the background that the film is nigh-on stripped of power and impact.

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