Genre: Drama, War
Directed by: Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Roger Allam
There’s a mainstream middlebrow type of film which the 50’s Nouvelle Vague called the ‘Cinema de Papa’, that is to say, it’s thoroughly conventional. It tends to suffer from platitudes and echo the views and moral perspectives of the average person. The Book Thief goes over much repeated material in a form that is so well known it could induce narcolepsy. At times it’s cliché and cringey, but it’s also a wonderful and emotional journey through the eyes of a little girl during the worst period of humanity. It is conventional, but it’s also worth your time.
The Book Thief is about a young girl whose brother dies and whose mother abandons her – all at the age of 11. An older couple in Nazi Germany adopts her, where her foster father teaches her how to read which lights a fire inside her to keep reading. Since this is Nazi Germany, books are very hard to find. The only way she can get more books is to “borrow” them. All the while, her family agrees to hide a young Jewish man in their basement, which puts the young girl’s family at great risk. But, the young girl and the young man become good friends, helping each other through hard times.
WW2 films viewed from a young perspective are always interesting because of the innocence and humanity shown by the infants. Much like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Liesel and her friend, Rudy, just can’t fathom why all of this pain and suffering is going on in the world. Rudy dresses up like Jesse Owens and pretends to be him and, ultimately, is punished for it. Of course, he can’t see what he’s doing wrong. I think this aspect of the film was handled really well.
However, World War 2 was one of the worst periods in history and this film doesn’t give that impression. I never felt as if the children were in that much trouble or that there was much threat. It’s understandable why they’ve gone down this route though. After all, this film is aimed at a younger audience. I do accept that it’s a good way for children to engage with World War 2, I just wish it was grittier and darker because that’s what the subject matter deserves. It’s a bit too glossy for my liking.
The performances are as strong as you’d expect. Geoffrey Rush in particular is fantastic. He’s so loveable and every little nuance is done to perfection. His chemistry with Sophie Nélisse’s Liesel, who also puts in a great performance, is wonderful. Something has to be said of Emily Watson’s role too, as she brings so much experience to the screen and is a joy to watch.
It wouldn’t be a war film without a John Williams score and his orchestrations are once again superb, the music finely crafted with that Williams-esque brand of class. For the most part this score is quite small in scope and the chamber-sized orchestra consists mainly of the strings, woodwinds and a small brass section. His score pulls at the heartstrings and certainly packs a punch.
Brought to life by excellent performances and a rousing score, The Book Thief might be a little too conventional for some but its heart is in the right place.