The Book Thief
Brian Percival's moving and well-acted WWII adaptation let down by hurried plotting
Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s global best-seller The Book Thief is, like Mark Herman's take on John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, a film that unfolds from the German perspective during World War II. Unlike that film, however, The Book Thief feels much less potent, despite some very good acting and a couple of genuinely moving moments.
Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is a German schoolgirl who is sent to live with foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) as her nation is gripped by war and the dictats of Hitler’s regime. Intrigued by the only book she brought with her, Liesel begins to collect (or steal) books whenever opportunity arises and, encouraged by her step-father, begins to develop an appreciation for the complexity of the world around her. This extends to harbouring a Jew in their basement, an act that places her new family in danger.
Percival’s film is at its best and most compelling when exploring the relationship between Liesel and her new parents, during which Rush and Watson excel, tapping into the uncertainty and fear of life in Hitler’s Germany. Rush in particular shines as the kindly father-figure whose rational thinking and heartfelt inclination to do what’s right threaten wider repercussions. But Watson is great too, her initially icy demeanour giving rise to a similarly warm human being.
The film also features an engaging fledgling romance between Liesel and a young boy named Rudy (memorably played by Nico Liersch), but it’s much less successful in its depiction of the relationship between Liesel and Max, the Jew her family attempts to save, which feels a little too rushed and even token, while a persistent voice-over from Death (delivered by Roger Allam) feels unnecessary, distracting and even pretentious, ultimately depriving the film of what should otherwise have been a powerful conclusion.