Almost defiantly old-fashioned, too long by a good 15 minutes (maybe more), inconsistent in its narrative approach and frequently betraying the fact that director Brian Percival comes from TV, The Book Thief is nonetheless a solid film with a well-told story and performances that raise it above its shortcomings. Even so, you would be advised to approach the film with its shortcomings in mind — though I’m sure there are people who will think it’s just fine the way it is. It has that patina of historical authenticity that pleases a lot of people all by itself.
I don’t really mind that the film is old-fashioned. These days, that sometimes feels almost avant-garde. I don’t even mind its tendency to (effectively) rely on a certain amount of cliché, especially since the bulk of the movie’s clichés are served up by consummate pros like Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. They may not make you forget that the clichés are there, but they can make you not care very much. No, my biggest beef lies in the strangely inconsistent use of narration. The narration is a big part of the source novel by Mark Zusak. In fact, the narrator — Death (voiced here by British stage and TV actor Roger Allam) — is who tells the entire story in the book. In the movie, the narration disappears for great stretches of time — to the degree that it’s often jarring when he suddenly pipes up. Too bad, too, because his wry, tired, even somewhat sad take on the events is one of the best things about the movie. Narration is often thought of as a crutch in film — screenwriting classes advise against it, despite its existence in quite a few highly-regarded movies — but here it’s hard not to wish there was more of it.
Even so, the film we do get has its merits — even if it does downplay its depictions of Nazi atrocities. (I’m not entirely sure that’s a downside, since the main character barely understands what’s happening around her.) Sophie Nélisse plays Liesel, a young girl whose mother (Heike Makatsch) arranges to have her taken in by a couple in a distant city in 1938 Germany. (Mother is a communist, slated for a trip to a concentration camp any day.) The couple — Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) — are not entirely altruistic. They are expecting a stipend for taking her in. Actually, they were expecting two, but Liesel’s brother (Julian Lehmann) died on the journey. Hans is warm and loving; Rosa is harsh, forbidding and not happy about the halved income. Things settle into a routine — built largely on Liesel’s desire to learn to read (starting with a book she picked up at her brother’s funeral, The Gravedigger’s Handbook). But, of course, the world of Nazism creeps in — especially when Hans and Rosa take in a Jew, Max (TV actor Ben Schnetzer), who is hiding from the Nazis.
Much of what happens is fairly predictable — especially once you get the film’s basic tone — but it’s mostly done with artistry and obvious good intentions. It’s primarily the acting and the first-rate production values that put the film over. Plus, the story’s point of view — and its faith in the redemptive power of writing — is sufficiently fresh to make the whole thing just different enough to keep it interesting. A great movie? No, but it’s a good one — with flashes of something more. Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.
Starts Wednesday at Carolina Cinemas