Aug 31, 2014

Review: The Book Thief (2013)

Will film viewers ever tire of watching dramas set during World War II? I suppose not. With so many different angles and possible stories, it's an unlimited supply of heavy hitting material. The Book Thief is based off of a book by writer Markus Zusak and was released worldwide in 2006. Narrated by Death, it's important to note that it's intended for young adults. These days, YA seems like a synonym for terrible but that's not why I'm bringing it up here. I've never read the book myself anyhow and it did end up with a fair amount of literary awards.

As a WWII movie, The Book Thief has a fair amount of the necessities checked off. It's set in Germany and has some actual German actors. The main characters are all actors pretending to be German but with talented names like Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson that shouldn't be too much of a problem. It's even scored by the famed John Williams. This is British director Brian Percival's film project to date though. 


Genre: drama, war
Directed by: Brian Percival
Produced by: Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt, Redmond Morris, etc.
Written by: Michael Petroni
Music by: John Williams
Running time: 131 minutes
Production company: Fox 2000 Pictures, Sunswept Entertainment, Studio Babelsberg
Distributed by: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Big Picture 2 Films, CinemArt, etc.
Country: United States, Germany
Language: English, German
Budget: $19,000,000
Box office: $76,586,316 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Sandra Nedeleff, Hildegard Schroedter, Rafael Gareisen, Gotthard Lange, Godehard Giese, Roger Allam, Oliver Stokowski, Barbara Auer, Heike Makatsch, Levin Liam, Carina Wiese


It's 1938 and Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is traveling on a train with her mother (Heike Makatsch) and younger brother (Julian Lehmann). Liesel's mother is fleeing Germany because of the fact that she's a communist. Tragically, Lisel's brother dies on the train and is buried in a lonely ceremony. Liesel then quickly finds herself being dropped off at her new foster parents' home outside of Munich. Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) are disappointed to find one of their foster children deceased. Liesel must find her way in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. Luckily enough, she has a friendly neighbor in Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch) who is quick to be friends with her.


In terms of performances, it's all pretty nicely done. Sophie Nélisse who is completely new to me, does a good job as Liesel Meminger. Although it's not her fault, the dialogue which is 95% in English with a German accent is jarring when I'd just prefer for the whole thing to be done 100% in German since the movie is set in Germany anyway. I'd be totally cool with subtitles but I guess that's a purely personal preference. Anyway, this is a movie made clearly with American audiences in mind. Even hearing the word soccer sounds alien when it seems to me like football is what the sport called in all of Europe. However, Sophie sounds fine to my Canadian ear when it comes to her accent as does everyone else who's not a native German.

Emily Watson puts on a good stern, German housewife act and Geoffrey Rush makes for a fine presence as well. Rush isn't heavily depended on here so don't expect one of his typical masterful performances. The narration by Roger Allam also adds a nice literary feel to the production.

I can't help but feel that The Book Thief has been gently cleansed of anything and everything that's too rough for what is undeniably a YA crowd. This is World War II we're talking about here! It touches upon what living in Germany would feel like for residents who aren't totally in sync with what their Führer wants but I don't think it goes deep enough. There's even a scene depicting Kristallnacht that is of course tragic but doesn't feel as intense or heart wrenching as it could. Kristallnacht is a moment in history that has put knots in my stomach thinking about the sheer atrocity of it. I ended up feeling like some kind of robot watching this scene in The Book Thief. Something was off.

That's not to say that The Book Thief doesn't have a pulse. It's just better at getting it's emotions across when it comes to friendship, family and love. These are definitely themes that are going to resonate better with the YA crowd anyway. There are some moments that came off as cheesy to me throughout the movie but I'm sure that what's cheesy to me will hit some other people a whole lot stronger.

The Book Thief is not a horrible movie or anything like that. It's relatively well shot, it's got a very restrained score from John Williams and it's got a talented young actress in Sophie Nélisse who is backed up nicely by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. For a World War II movie though, it just feels hollow and uninvolved. It's still perfectly good to watch but just don't expect anything too big in terms of exploration or insight.



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