The Book Thief, based on Markus Zusak’s novel of the same name, has been adapted to the film by director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni. It tells the story of young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) who is on a train on her way to Germany to live with her new foster parents. On the way there her brother comes down with sickness and dies. This leaves poor Liesel alone to meet new foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson).
Things get off to a rough start for the new family, as the tough Rosa is more aggravated than sad when she finds out that now they won’t get their allowance for adopting Liesel’s brother. Hans quickly sense the issues at hand and continues to step in and treat Liesel as his own daughter. Things change for the family once they meet Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jewish refugee, who comes to Hans looking for a place to hide. Max’s father sacrificed his life for Hans during war, and Hans made a promise to protect his family if the time ever came. It’s through the sheltering of Max that brings them closer as a family, tightening the bond through a shared conflict.
By now we have all surely seen our fair share of WW2 inspired films. So while The Book Thief may not be anything new, it still has a pretty interesting story to tell. Since we are seeing the story told through a mysterious narrator (who we don’t meet until the end of the film) and following young Liesel, things stay interesting. We see Liesel grow up with her family, as well as her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch). The lengths that people will go to to protect someone during wartime is always inspiring.
What works for The Book Thief is its cast. Geoffrey Rush is perfect as always, honed in with a sincere and kind hearted character. Emily Watson works off him well with her tough but loving Rosa. Ben Schnetzer gets his first big movie role as Max, and he’s more than worthy of the job. It’s the film’s young stars, Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch who take the film home, with charming performances that lead the way.
The Book Thief seems to be aiming for all kinds of Oscar gold, but I it’s that mindset that prevents it from even coming close. Aside from the performances and some relevant set pieces, costumes and music, its all pretty standard fair. It’s by the numbers in too many ways, that keep it from being truly exciting or memorable. I admit, the ending will tug at the heartstrings and is quite sad, but it took way too long for the film really to sweep me into it, leaving me wondering what the film could have been if they took a more natural approach.
The film is mostly enjoyable thanks to its actors, and is still much better than other stuff you’ll find out right now, but it really could have been so much more.