The Book Thief
Watching "The Book Thief," you can’t help but become conscious of the fact that it’s based on a book. The tone, the structure, the way it skews between attempts at spiritual platitudes and intimate conversational details - it all reeks of the written word. Technically this is an adaptation, but I suspect very little adapting was actually done. The finished product is so lacking in visual dynamism and cinematic texture that it plays like an audio book with images attached. You could watch the picture with your eyes closed and lose very little.
The titular character is Liesel, a young girl given up by her communist mother in 1938 Germany, and left with politically ambivalent foster parents (they refuse to join the Nazi Party, but don’t do much to oppose it, either). Director Brian Percival surrounds her with enough narrative strands to fill up the picture’s snail-paced 130 minutes: A flirtation with a neighbor, a love affair with (stolen) novels that starts up after she overcomes illiteracy, and face-offs with a number of bullying Nazi antagonists. Oh yeah, and the spirit of Death drops in on a few oddly-timed occasions, narrating the story and assigning cosmic significance to the senseless deaths of millions.
This is a small story that aspires to weighty truths, but is played at far too broad a tenor to achieve them. The tone of the picture veers wildly, playing for humor in one moment (Liesel and the boy playfully frolic through the neighborhood on more than one occasion), harrowing affect in the next (the body count stacks up pretty quickly), and heart warming pathos in the next (of course, Death’s voiceover appears over the finale to comfort us, despite the souls lost). The way the tale uses the Holocaust as a vehicle for coming-of-age clichés and crass sentimentality isn’t morally offensive, but it’s offensively lazy.
There is, however, a bright light shining through, much like the books Liesel uses to help get her through her toughest moments: Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson’s performances as Hans and Rose, the older couple that adopts the girl, afford the film a sense of sincerity that it fails to achieve at any other moment. Rush’s performance as the kindly Hans would’ve been botched by nearly any other actor, but his eyes and goofily large smile offer a genuine warmth that cut right through the film’s inherent sentimentality. This is a script full of miracles and uplifting moments, yet the looks of paternal love he darts toward Liesel over breakfast or reading sessions are the only time Percival is able to find real emotion in his frame.
To offset Rush, Watson drains her performance of ingratiating tics entirely: Her snide stares and terse body language illustrates quite clearly that all she wanted out of Liesel’s adoption was the stipend that accompanied it. So when she, inevitably, melts toward the girl, offering love and acceptance, we believe it. Even then, Watson plays each line with the same jaded dissatisfaction, now undercut by a clearly-reluctant kindness. The two actors bring a human element to a story that’s otherwise lost in the clouds. Percival and his screenwriters play the Death angle to the nines, searching for Big Meanings and profundities, yet there film’s finest points occur when its performers bring things down to Earth.