It’s obviously clear who the audience for The Book Thief is, yet somehow even children will walk away with an incomplete understanding of what the film tries to convey and of who the narrator is. And while Brian Percival tries to give us an account of Nazi Germany and of how important reading is through a young girl’s eyes, having child actors carry the weight of the entire film leaves it lacking a certain emotional depth that the story requires.
FilmGordon’s Audio Review | (Grade: A)
Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is on her way to Heaven St. to live with her new Foster family in World War II Germany. Her Foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) are expecting two children, but Liesel’s brother gets sick and dies on the way. Her mother’s on the run from the Nazis for being a communist and is never seen after leaving her daughter with her new family.
Hans and Rosa are kind to her and Liesel lives a generally good childhood, befriends a precocious boy named Rudy (Nico Liersch), and remains mostly untouched by the effects of the Nazis until a late-night visitor named Max (Ben Schnetzer) seeks shelter from the Nazis for being a Jew and her time with him and her surroundings slowly opens Liesel’s eyes.
She learns that words are her biggest weapon as she is taught how to read and write. After a public book burning and being banned from a private library, Liesel begins borrowing books and using her words to transform the lives of those around her.
The fact that film, based on the book by Austrian author Markus Zusak, encourages reading is a great thing. It has some great quotes that can be used to inspire children and even adults when things get too crazy around us. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are always a joy to watch (and really, they’re the best characters), but the film lacks a spark which drives its concept from something that could be great and knocks it down to mediocre.
Sure, the kids are kind of cute, but eventually their monotone voices and the movie’s slow-going pace don’t keep it afloat for long. And it’s hard to say because working with children is harder, but their characters don’t shine or have enough personality other than being solemn the majority of the time.
Hollywood, and industries in general, have a common fault. They seem to think that because the main character is a child that the movie can be aimed at children. What they never understand is that it’s not about how old the main character is, but rather about the concepts, material, and whether it’s too complicated for children to understand without asking a lot questions.
The Book Thief deals with a lot of issues that might be too adult for children. Yes, there’s the reading parts and themes like courage and such, but there also things like war, government control, destruction of intellectual property, long-held prejudices, and the depth of these concepts is something several children in the theater did not understand. They kept asking their parents for explanations, most especially about who the narrator is. Explaining to them that Death is the narrator and how he plays into the film might prove a little difficult.
Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are the best thing about the movie. The rest of the characters are flat, and with the exception of certain scenes, the movie’s pace struggles to captivate the audience’s attention. It almost feels like the film is just simply going through the motions, the narration by Death proving to be one of the more intriguing aspects of the film. A lot of this can be explained by the fact that the book is originally in German, and some things might not translate the same way in English, but it still doesn’t excuse it.
While the majority of the film doesn’t entice, there are still several scenes that do. Rudy pretending to be track athlete Jesse Owens and having his father explain to him, or not explain to him, why he couldn’t be really goes to show that fear and hatred can run deep and be meaningless. And while the child actors aren’t anything amazing, Sophie Nelisse and Nico Liersch still have a few cute scenes together. Their innocence does shine through the screen occasionally, really reminding the audience that sometimes things really aren’t as complicated as we adults make them out to be.