Director: Brian Percival
Cast: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Watch The Book Thief online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / TalkTalk TV / iTunes
You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t steal a book either, we presume. Thieving books is a crime. Do not accept it. All that doesn’t bother Liesel Meminger (Nélisse). Taken away from her family in pre-WWII Germany, she would steal a book. In fact, she would steal several. She’d probably steal a car too. And a handbag. But does anybody punish The Book Thief? Do they heck.
Of course, the movie isn’t really about the policing of unauthorised literary acquisitions. It follows Liesel as she settles into her adoptive home, run by icy stepmom Rosa (Watson) and warm-hearted gent Hans (Rush). He plays the accordion.
Her main problem in trying to fit in? She can’t read. So together with Rush’s warm-hearted accordion player, she learns, turning their basement into a giant blackboard dictionary, full of chalk characters. That’s soon interrupted by the arrival of another figure: Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew they’ve promised to shelter from the Nazis.
Can Liesel keep Max a secret, even from her best friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch)? What about the Mayor’s wife (Barbara Auer), Ilsa, from whom she is borrowing books? And when will Geoffrey Rush play the accordion next?
If at this point the words start to jumble together, that’s because The Book Thief’s page is more crowded than The Hobbit in a book-reading club hosted by Benedict Cumberbatch at Comic-Con.
Director Brian Percival shoots Liesel’s quaint German village with a nice eye for colour and Sophie Nélisse is fantastically charming as the eager reader, but the narrative soon gets away from them both. Rush and Watson bring weight to her family home, while Auer’s turn as the formidable library owner adds a wonderful note of ambiguity, but the lack of focus leaves the film sluggishly turning the pages of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel, seemingly without aim. The introduction of Death as a narrator (Roger Allam) at random intervals – and an inconsistent switching between English and German dialogue – only adds to the haphazard tone.
Should we be shocked at the village’s communal bonfire of books? Rooting for Rudy and Liesel’s fledgling romance? Laughing at Geoffrey Rush’s comic timing? Or worried about Max’s safety? Scenes of him and Liesel huddled together with a book hint at a wider theme of reading as an act that brings people together, but the wayward storytelling ultimately leaves you detached from it all.
Trying to stuff in so many pages at once, The Book Thief ends up missing a few. It’s worth seeing just for Sophie Nélisse’s courageous performance – but you almost wish this historical drama was about her stealing books after all.
The Book Thief is available to watch on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription – with the first 30 days free.
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