A tone of Disneyfied whimsy is mixed with segments of effective drama in this touching if problematic Second World War story. The film begins with a voiceover representing ‘death’, explaining how everyone’s time eventually comes, which attempts to turn a film about life in Nazi Germany into a dreamy, if morbid, winter time fable. It’s not completely clear why the film is bookended with this peculiar narration. It’s like it isn’t convinced its drama is powerful enough on its own. Actually, for the most part, it is.
The film tells the story of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), being fostered by Hans (a delightful Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (a stony faced Emily Watson). She befriends neighbour boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) and the two form a sweet relationship, even if scenes between just the two of them can seem somewhat wooden. The family hide a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer), which forms the film’s most convincing and engrossing core. Watching his shadow of a life unfold in the basement amidst the risk it places on the family is performed with a stoic sincerity from all concerned and captures a compelling tension which covers up some of the more heavy handed writing. Rush and Watson form a wonderful presence with the former bringing a particular cosiness like the perfect cup of tea, with every line on his face telling its own story. The film is performed with ‘German accents’ which didn’t bother me nearly to the extent expected, maybe because I was so charmed.
The Book Thief has an elegant aesthetic, with some noticeably gorgeous costumes and sets. It desperately needs a good edit, however. This is glaringly apparent at the end of the film which seems to finish on numerous occasions until it finally settles on a conclusion, which feels a touch too fluffy and perfectly knotted considering its subject matter. A couple subplots including Liesel’s relationship with a bereaved mother owning an enormous library feel a bit too heavy handed, as Liesel spends hours reading as the mother looks on, imagining her own. The Book Thief may eventually find its niche as a solid starting point to introduce children to one of the darkest points in history with its endearing characters and feeling of historical accuracy. It’s certainly dark, but can still be enjoyed with a hot chocolate.
The Book Thief is out on 26th February in the UK. Running time 130 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).