There is an original voice in Markus Zusak's 2005 bestselling novel "The Book Thief" - it is death.
There is no such uniqueness to be found in director Brian Percival's cinematic adaptation of the same name, a sentimental and pretty film that somehow manages to make World War II Germany seem downright bland. The story's heroine is Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse, Monsieur Lazhar), a young girl whom we meet as she is being taken by her mother (Heike Makatsch) to live with the Hubermann's, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), the former a rather gentle and kindly man and the latter a more fearful and demanding woman whose softening is one of the film's greater authenticities.
The Book Thief weaves into the story other characters including a dear friend for Liesel named Rudy (Nico Liersch) and, not surprisingly, a young Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) who is taken in by the Hubermanns and lives in their basement.
There is a vision in The Book Thief that is admirable in the telling of the stories of those who might be called "ordinary Germans," those Germans who weren't true Nazi supporters but who either went along with it all out of fear or who became subtle objectors in ways big and small. Indeed, it is difficult to have a discussion about the Holocaust without wondering aloud how Hitler managed to get what seems like an entire nation to go along with the extermination of millions of people in the concentration camps. The Book Thief certainly doesn't have all of the answers, or any of them really, but it does serve as a reminder that not all who were German agreed with Hitler's actions.
After its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival, The Book Thief served as the closing night film for Indianapolis's Heartland Film Festival. Heartland is, of course, a natural fit for a film festival that celebrates the positive and inspiring side of life. While The Book Thief proved to be a perfect fit for the Heartland Film Festival, its prospects for solid box-office are minimal now that the film has opened in limited nationwide release with distributor 20th Century Fox. Despite the instant cred that comes with casting both Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, The Book Thief looks and feels like a young adult novel come to life with Florian Ballhaus's cinematography eliciting a sense of far more danger than actually ever exists within the film. The stark cinematography contests with a lighter original score provided by John Williams, a score that fits nicely within the film's inspiring and life-affirming fabric.
The film's real selling point proves to be the presence of Geoffrey Rush, whose performance as Hans embodies the goodness of a man who tries to do the wrong thing in the most possibly wrong circumstances. Young Sophie Nelisse's opening scenes are quite involving as are the scenes she shares with Ben Schnetzer as Max. It is the friendship that develops between Max and Liesel that gives The Book Thief the heart it so desperately needs. For a film with so many emotionally riveting and involving storylines, The Book Thief quite often doesn't move past the facts and into the feelings.
The Book Thief, in fact, lacks the emotional resonance and power of other similarly themed films that have played Heartland in recent years including Mother of Mine and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the former a Dutch language film that remains one of my favorite Heartland films of all time and the latter a film that experienced some degree of box-office success before becoming one of those "you have to see this" films on home video.
While "The Book Thief" truly is a "have to read this" kind of book, such conviction and purpose is absent from Downton Abbey-trained Percival. The film, even to the point of being released amidst awards season, feels like an obvious Oscar play that plays it all just a wee bit too obviously and mutes its impact in the process.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic