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Film Review: 'The Book Thief'

Rex Lindeman |
November 9, 2013 | 9:30 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is the titular character, delivering a great performance in only her third feature film (20th Century Fox).
Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is the titular character, delivering a great performance in only her third feature film (20th Century Fox).

Another November release adapted from a popular novel, director Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey") brings us "The Book Thief." Set in Nazi Germany during World War II, the film follows Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl given up for adoption. At a makeshift funeral service for her dead brother, she steals a book and runs off.

She then meets her foster parents: Hans (Geoffrey Rush), the loveable and gentle father, and Rosa (Emily Watson), the strict and demanding but well intentioned mother. When Hans spends time with Liesel before bedtime, he notices the stolen book she clutches, titled "The Gravedigger's Handbook." After admitting she doesn’t know how to read, Hans begins to teach Liesel how to read and write.

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Later on, her parents take in Jewish refugee Max (Ben Schnetzer) and hide him under the stairs in their basement. Liesel begins to spend quality time with him and her family by stealing books and reading them to him. We watch Liesel grow as an intellectual and Rosa show her softer side in compassion.

The recipe for a great period film is here; a talented cast, pretty cinematography, spectacular production design, and a sweeping score. However, despite all of these necessary and wonderful qualities, "The Book Thief" doesn't fully grasp the heart like it tries to. Why?

For being a WWII drama, there are surprisingly few details about the war they are supposedly enduring. Horror and tragedy are referenced, but undeservedly downplayed. A Nazi rally is held with a massive bonfire of books. We briefly glimpse Kristallnacht.

Lastly, apart from some unspeakable events toward the film's end, that's all we ever see. Liesel's home and neighborhood on the appropriately named Himmel St. (German for "heaven") is surprisingly peaceful for a country in the midst of a war.If stealing books and reading them to loved ones is Liesel’s way of coping, then displaying more grim realities of war would have given her actions more meaning. Saving the horrors for the climax makes them long overdue.

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An interesting detail carried over from the book is that the narrator is Death. He notes that WWII "was an especially busy time" for him. He narrates the film's opening and then four or five arbitrarily placed commentaries, offering little to no insight. Although an interesting plot device, it probably works better in the novel.

The film is not bad, but it desperately tries to grab for Oscars while not paying to these finer details that impact audience reception. "The Book Thief" is worth a gander - several people in my theater loved it - but it probably won't stick with you for very long.

Watch the trailer below:

Reach Staff Reporter Rex Lindeman here. Follow him on Twitter.



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