Release Date: 26th February 2014
Running Time: 131 minutes
Director: Brian Percival
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
The Book Thief arrives on the back of some serious expectation; the novel of the same name has sold over eight million copies worldwide, and unlike some bestsellers of recent years was also met with mass critical acclaim upon release. Letting the story unfold from the point of view of Death, the book provided a unique insight into war and tragedy, as well as lending poignant ruminations on the nature of creativity and the endurance of the human spirit. There’s an awful lot of ground to cover in its 550 pages, something which director Brian Percival is acutely aware of, and unfortunately is also suffocated by in what is a disappointingly messy and turgid adaptation.
Beginning in Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War, Liesel (Nélisse) is the young daughter of a fugitive communist, who is taken in by an older couple after her mother flees the country and younger brother dies. Keeping hold of a book she finds at her brother’s funeral, and rescuing another after a Nazi book burning, she becomes fascinated by them despite being unable to read. Her foster father Hans (Rush) takes it upon himself to teach her, and she soon finds herself with an insatiable appetite for reading and writing.
What follows is a muddled and at times severely misjudged series of events that alternately switch between the harrowing, inane and comedic at a rate that leaves you utterly lost. The direction and overall goal is frustratingly unclear, other than the usual “war is bad” mantra that comes with any films of the genre as standard, you wonder where any of this is going. One sequence follows another seemingly without any rhyme or reason, until eventually the film concludes so suddenly and brazenly that it almost strays into comedy, which is dangerous territory for a story that’s intended effect would rather have you reaching for your hanky.
That’s not to say that it’s entirely without merit; the historical attention to detail in the backdrops, sets and costumes are certainly impressive, and the cinematography is sumptuous. It’s also refreshing to see a film of this genre told from the point of view of a German family during Nazi occupation, blurring the lines between right and wrong as ordinary folk are caught up in a war beyond their control. Some of the performances are pretty decent too, although you wouldn’t expect any less from like likes of acting stalwarts Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
It is not without admirable intentions, but The Book Thief ultimately falls short of expectations despite its efforts. Trying to be profound and moving, it instead wanders aimlessly without the heft needed to pull off some truly heavy subject matter. Not a complete failure, but far from the success it desperately wants to be.