The Book Thief (12A)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner26/02/2014

Two out of Five stars
Running time: 131 mins

Despite strong performances from Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush, this is ultimately something of a disappointment, thanks to sluggish direction, a curiously uneventful screenplay, a general lack of suspense and a surfeit of forced sentimentality.

What's it all about?
Directed by Brian Percival (best known for his work on TV's Downton Abbey), The Book Thief is based on the novel by Markus Zusak and stars newcomer Sophie Nelisse as 12 year old Leisel, who is taken from her Communist mother in Germany in 1938 and housed with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). While Leisel struggles to connect with grumpy Rosa, kindly Hans teaches her to read and appreciate books, so she's understandably horrified when the Nazis start banning and burning them.

With her appearance arousing little suspicion, Leisel starts stealing books from the burnings and soon graduates to taking them from the Mayor himself (Rainer Bock), with the tacit approval of the Mayor's wife (Barbara Auer). Meanwhile, Leisel becomes friendly with young wannabe athlete Rudy (Nico Liersch) and her life is further transformed when Hans and Rosa agree to shelter a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer), who shares Leisel's love of books and encourages her to write her own story.

The Good
Emily Watson is excellent as Rosa, under-playing her scenes to great effect; consequently, the scene where she reveals the extent of her affection for Leisel is the film's most powerfully emotional moment. Similarly, Geoffrey Rush delivers an engagingly warm-hearted turn as Hans and newcomer Nelisse is an appealing presence, even if her performance often feels a little one note (she's very good at wide-eyed bemusement but isn't called upon to do much else).

That said, the decision to have the entire cast speak English with thick German accents, using authentically German children as extras, (plus Liersch is German, though Nelisse is French-Canadian) was probably misguided, since it's both distracting and, when you think about it, no less realistic than having them speak unaccented English.

The Bad
The main problem with the film is the sluggish pacing, coupled with the fact that very little actually happens - in particular, the plot lacks any sense of suspense and fails to convey the very real horror of the situation, with the various atrocities occurring off-screen or in weirdly sanitised fashion (e.g. lines of bloodless corpses in the street). On top of that, the literary device of having the story narrated by Death himself (a silky-voiced Roger Allam) doesn't really translate to the film version and is badly integrated, sitting oddly with the story that unfolds; it also means that the torrent of sentimentality that pours forth in the film's climax feels decidedly forced and lacks the required emotional impact.

Worth seeing?
The Book Thief is a disappointing wartime drama that has a frustrating lack of focus and fails to satisfy on either a dramatic or emotional level.

Film Trailer

The Book Thief (12A)
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Content updated: 22/01/2019 23:24

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