[Screen It]


(2013) (Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush) (PG-13)

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Drama: A formerly illiterate girl uses books to help her and others cope with the spread of xenophobia in her Nazi controlled German town at the onset of WWII.
It's the late 1930s and Liesel Meminger (SOPHIE NELISSE) is a young, illiterate girl whose younger brother has just died onboard a train as they were headed to a small German town to live with their new foster parents, Hans (GEOFFREY RUSH) and Rosa Hubermann (EMILY WATSON).

While the latter is the stern breadwinner of the family via her laundering of locals' clothes, including those owned by Ilsa Hermann (BARBARA AUER), the wife of the local Burgomeister, Hans is a quieter painter who treats Liesel with respect and helps her learn how to read and write. Her illiteracy initially brings about ridicule from the likes of a bully classmate, Franz Deutscher (LEVIN LIAM), but neighbor boy and fellow classmate Rudy Steiner (NICO LIERSCH) befriends the newcomer, although his desire to be like African-American runner Jesse Owens doesn't sit well with his father or others.

As time passes by, Liesel -- who's found something of an unlikely ally in Ilsa who has a similar love for books -- gets to put her new literacy to work in the form of telling stories and later reading books to Max Vandenburg (BEN SCHNETZER). He's a young Jewish man who's taken refuge in the Hubermann basement where he hopes to avoid detection by the local Nazis. With the onset of WWII and the ever-increasing xenophobia among the townsfolk, it's uncertain if he or those harboring him will be safe.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While death as an event has occurred in too many films to count, Death as an actual personified figure has been much rarer. The most famous, at least for movie buffs, is when the Grim Reaper played chess with Max von Sydow in "The Seventh Seal." Frederic March also played him in "Death Takes a Holiday," while Brad Pitt reprised the role in "Meet Joe Black."

We never see Death in "The Book Thief," but he's there from start to finish, not only doing the opening and closing voice-over narration and some bits in between, but also as an omnipresent literal and metaphorical figure. He's voiced by British actor Roger Allam in the sort of smooth and buttery fashion that belies his otherwise ominous presence, something that readers of Markus Zusak's source novel of the same name would have had to supply themselves.

I haven't had the pleasure of trying that myself -- I hear the 2006 book is quite good (it's won numerous awards and been on the New York Times bestseller list for years) -- but imagine the voice I would have used likely wouldn't have matched Allam's tonal quality. That said, I'm guessing the use of Death in that role probably worked a bit better than it does here, a sentiment that likely applies to the overall film as compared to the literary work.

As directed by Brian Percival from Michael Petroni's adaptation of Zusak's novel, the film is one of those efforts that probably looked golden in terms of turning it into a potential Oscar candidate. After all, it takes place in WWII era, Nazi controlled Germany, features the growing national xenophobia of those in Deutschland regarding plutocrats, communists and especially Jews, and centers around an illiterate girl thrust into the middle of all of that who uses reading and writing to help herself and others.

What could possibly go wrong with bringing that tale to the big screen? Well, it all comes down to pacing, tone, and doing something unique with a well-trodden period of history. Going in reverse order, there have been lots of notable films covering the Nazi side of WWII, and while the young girl and her related literary angle are somewhat fresh, the rest of the related material (most notably the presence of Nazi officers and soldiers and their treatment of Jews, etc.) comes off like retreaded material. To make matters worse, much of that is lacking in truly palpable urgency and danger, and thus the tension isn't what it should be for a film of this nature with this sort of storyline.

It sort of feels like the filmmakers realized they needed to insert that sort of material into the proceedings and did just enough to get by (as compared to what Tarantino pulled off in various scenes in "Inglourious Basterds" where the volatility and uncertainty of how the various Nazis might behave at any moment created an uneasy electricity throughout).

And that ends up only further exacerbating what's otherwise a fairly slow pit of pacing that doesn't do the pic any favors. The story seems to drag on far longer than the film's running time of 130 or so minutes as it covers a number of years that laboriously pass by, as well as the various subplots. They include the hiding of a young Jewish man played by Ben Schnetzer, and the young girl's interaction with a woman (Barbara Auer) who's married to the local magistrate and senses the girl's fellow love of books. Alas, all of that doesn't come together as well as it should.

What the film does have going for it, however, are solid to outstanding performances. As the young heroine, Sophie Nelisse is not only completely believable, but she also draws you into her character and her plight. Emily Watson is quite good as her stern foster mother, but it's Geoffrey Rush who really shines as that woman's husband. He plays a painter whose only real work is removing Jewish sounding names from storefront signs to protect his friends, all while having to deal with the emasculating shame of his wife now being the breadwinner due to him refusing to join the Nazi party.

He finds solace in helping Liesel (who he cutely refers to as "Your majesty") learn how to read and write, and those scenes are some of the film's best highlights. The same holds true for her interactions with a neighbor boy (Nico Liersch) who looks like he could be a poster child for the Aryan race, but befriends this newcomer, dreams of growing up to be Jesse Owens (much to the chagrin of his horrified father and others), and ends up hating Hitler. Their moments together give the film its heart and soul.

And then there's Death. Considering he opens the film with the comment that everyone is going to die, and throwing in the time and place in which the story unfolds, well, it's no surprise that all will not be peaches and cream. While such developments might be handled with more aplomb in the novel, the related material in the film, while still upsetting, doesn't carry the gravitas that I felt it should, followed by a quick wrap-up that doesn't do the story or its main character the justice both deserve. Not horrible by any means but certainly not as good as it could and should have been, "The Book Thief" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 5, 2013 / Posted November 15, 2013

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