When her family is torn apart by the Nazi rule of Germany, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is taken in by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rose (Emily Watson). As she grows curious about the world around her, Hans teaches Liesel to read, a pastime she finds comfort and solace in. Liesel soon shares her passion with others, including the young Jewish man being hidden in her family’s basement.
Based on the best selling novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is not only an examination of childhood, but a look at how German people also suffered under the Nazi rule of their country. This is an interesting narrative, but one that is not adequately explored after it is introduced.
As Liesel, Sophie Nélisse captures both the fear and wonder of child thrust into a foreign home. As she opens up under Hans’s careful eye, Nélisse reveals her character to be as strong-willed as she is innocent, and the young actress manages the role well, even if it seems the accent she is given constrains her at time. Much of the warmth of the film comes from her relationship with Hans, and Geoffrey Rush makes the character gentle and sweet. The relationship between the two characters is warm, and provides the emotional heart of the film. Emily Watson gives a strong performance as Rose, a woman with a good heart but a gruff exterior. Nico Liersch captures childlike persistence as Rudy and Ben Schnetzer provides Liesel with another friend as Max.
The trouble with the film lies not in the performances, but with the tone of the film. Liesel’s life is undoubtedly tough, but it seems that director Brian Percival was trying to capture the tone of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and decided to gloss over many of the more challenging scenes and themes in the film, leaving the Nazi storyline on the back burner, in favour of focusing on the horrors of not having enough books to read. What we are left with is an overly sentimental look at the life of a German child in WWII, that feels unfulfilling, even though the film is crammed with strong performances. The pacing, over the 131 minutes of the film, also falters, leaving the film feeling drawn out and slow.
Screenwriter Michael Petroni introduces the idea that Death (Roger Allam) has a fascination with Liesel, but quickly drops the idea, which means that one of the most interesting notions in the film is sidelined until absolutely necessary. Death is one of the strongest themes of the film, and one of the most interesting characters, is not given a chance to make The Book Thief anything other than a sweet but thin look at the life of a girl obsessed with the written word.
In all, The Book Thief is a film that sets out to examine the plight of the German people in WWII, but quickly shies away from the idea leaving the film beautifully designed, full of strong performances but slow, thin and badly paced. Nélisse and Rush shine, but this is not enough to make The Book Thief anything other than perfectly average.