Narrator / Death: I suppose I should properly introduce myself, although you will meet me soon enough … well, not before your time, of course.
I hate starting reviews this way but I have not read Markus Zusak’s incredibly successful THE BOOK THIEF. About five minutes into this unfortunate film adaptation, I really wish I had. It is clear from the plot that there is a great richness to what makes up this story. This richness is just wasted in Michael Petroni’s screenplay and then completely rendered trite by Brian Percival’s direction. You can always feel the potential throughout the film, especially when it is escalated as far as physically possible by this beautiful ensemble of actors, but it is always out of reach. Again, I’ve never read the source material but I can’t imagine fans of the fiction connecting with this interpretation.
THE BOOK THIEF is instantly off putting. We glide through the clouds and listen to the supposedly enlightened words of our narrator (Roger Allam), who also happens to be Death. It is reminiscent of the opening of AMERICAN BEAUTY, but it is difficult to connect with the words when they are this insipid. Death is essentially telling us, in a wise and witty tone no less, that we are all going to die, just like all the people we are going to meet in the story we are about to watch. This device is taken directly from the novel but in that venue, it can inform and be insightful and eerily reassuring. In this form, it was just awkward and amateurish. And this is just the beginning of the punishment. We are then introduced to our young heroine, Liesel (Sophie Nelisse, who between this and her debut, MONSIEUR LAZHAR, may just be the next Meryl Streep, if she keeps it up). It is 1938 and Liesel has been sold by her communist mother, after suddenly losing her younger brother to malnutrition, to a good German couple (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Once the war hits, it is one loss after another, which does not stop until the end of the film. There is no denying the Holocaust wasn’t horrifying and tragic, but the manner in which Percival presents it to us, it is almost laughable in its obviousness.
Of course, this is meant to be a story of finding hope when there shouldn’t be any hope in sight. Liesel and her new parents are just getting used to each other when a Jewish boy named Max (Ben Schnetzer) shows up on their door. Rush’s Hans fought in the war with his father and owes him his life so they take him in and hide him in their attic and cellar. Suddenly, this makeshift family must learn to trust each other, which is particularly difficult for the parents considering they have to place their trust in a young girl who may not grasp the gravity of her accidentally telling the wrong person about the family secret. What they don’t expect is that this banding together genuinely brings them closer together as a family, a feeling that Liesel has not known since she lost her brother. This is the one warmth that emanates from the film. This cast is charming together, an absolute delight to watch when the narrator and the Nazis are nowhere in sight. Unfortunately, this is a WWII film after all so it isn’t too long before both of these nuisances make their presence known again, killing all the momentum the film had struggled so much to garner.
THE BOOK THIEF is an infuriating film experience. For two hours, all you can do is watch helplessly as the talent and potential are squandered away right before your eyes. Considering how much time the filmmakers spent hammering us over the heads about just how tragic the whole ordeal is, their film is the only real tragedy here.