The Book Thief, film review
Dir: Brian Percival; Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Roger Allam, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer. 12A cert, 131 min.
Could The Book Thief boast the most vapid depiction of Nazi Germany that Hollywood has yet cooked up? Here, life under the Third Reich’s iron grip looks more or less like a John Lewis Christmas advert: round-faced urchins gambol in the streets, log fires crackle in the grate, snow perpetually tumbles from the sky like icing sugar. All that’s missing, you feel, is Lily Allen singing an acoustic, piano-backed cover version of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles', although I'll admit I didn’t stay for the entirety of the end credits, so she may in fact be in there.
The film is an adaptation of the popular young-adult novel by Markus Zusak, and has been designed chiefly for the purpose of winning Oscars and BAFTAs, with the needs of sentient, paying cinema-goers tucked away somewhere towards the back of its creators’ heads. Gratifyingly, the ploy was mostly unsuccessful: only the soundtrack by John Williams has had any significant awards traction, although you suspect that may be down to the strength of the Williams brand rather than the music itself, which is a shapeless mass of lilts and tinkles.
plot centres on Liesl Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl who is adopted by the Hubermanns, a childless couple from a chocolate-box town in Bavaria. Liesl’s new mother (Emily Watson) is a scold and a killjoy, while her father (Geoffrey Rush) is a whimsical sort who seldom ventures more than three feet from an accordion, and spends the film winking like his life depended on it.
In her new home, Liesl learns to read and escapes from the mounting, if incredibly sanitised, horrors of war into classic literature. Later, the family takes in a Jewish fugitive called Max (Ben Schnetzer), who lurks hunkily in the cellar and encourages Liesl to write, too.
The director, Brian Percival, came to the film from the television series Downton Abbey. He certainly makes everything look pretty, although neither he nor Michael Petroni, who wrote the script, seem able to give the story a sense of momentum or tension, or even locate it in a world that’s recognisably real. The cast, for example, deliver their lines in English but with thick Bavarian accents, which gives much of the drama a glaze of pure ‘Allo ‘Allo phoniness. The narrator is Death himself, played by Roger Allam, who keeps his English accent. But the film can’t be resuscitated.