It was only a matter of time until Markus Zusak’s bestseller was adapted to the big screen. An American-German production, it was finished before the scheduled time but the release was postponed to coincide with awards season. They didn’t need to worry, it seems – the Academy and others have been pretty indifferent to its grave style, to its award-calling themes and – here lies the rub – to the amazing performances of its actors.
Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) was left to the care of foster parents, the Huberman. While Hans (Geoffrey Rush) is welcoming and playful, Rosa (Emily Watson) shows no sign of emotion towards the young girl. Liesel can’t read, and when Hans finds out he teaches her through the book she stole at her brother’s funeral. Soon an old favour comes knocking, and the family hides Max Vandenburg, a Jew, on the basement. It could be The Diary of Anne Frank, it could be The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas. It feels like a mix of several stories that we all have seen before, though it is always refreshing to see the Second World War through the eyes and casualties of the “enemy”.
It is somewhat awkward to admire the beauty of the film’s cinematography, when it comes mostly from the vibrant reds of the Nazi flags contrasting with the snowy surroundings. The rhythm is stately, and one can feel the gravitas of director Brian Percival (who has also done Downton Abbey), which unfortunately makes the two-hour running time feel slightly excessive. The decision to make the characters speak in a mix of English with a foreign accent, throwing in the occasional German word to the mix, may be debatable, but it works.
From the beginning of the story, we know something bad is going to happen – if it is our own historical knowledge, or the brilliant soundtrack by John Williams, we are not sure. But when it comes, we are let down, and aren’t given enough time to assimilate the horrors of what just happened – we are rushed to the end, and to the conclusion neatly tied up by an underused narrator, forcing a moral down our throats, leaving no space for further interpretations. But in the middle of The Book Thief, a story that plays too safe and therefore can’t reach the same emotional impact of the book, we have Rush and Watson, and for the two of them, any regrets of sitting through yet another award-begging adaptation are gone.
The Book Thief is in cinemas now.