The Book Thief should be a much better movie than it turns out to be.
All the ingredients for an epic are in place, from a compelling story based on the best-selling book by Makus Zusak, to Academy Award winning actors, to on location shooting in Germany, adding to the film’s authenticity.
However, the end result of what seems like an overly long 131 minutes is a muddled re-make and re-run of exhausted themes we seen many times before, set against the backdrop of the horrors of World War II. More simply put, this is “Holocaust Lite.”
A little girl (played by Sophie Nelisse) is adopted by a working-class German family during the late 1930s. The adoptive parents are played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. This is a coming of age story, with an 800-pound gorilla about to enter the picture. Of course, that’s the war, which is about to turn a blissful childhood completely upside down.
War seen through the eyes of children can be a powerful vehicle, as we’ve seen many times before. From Life is Beautiful to The Boy the in Striped Pajamas, the violation of innocence is a universally powerful concept, worthy of empathy. But it just doesn’t work here, as the angelic child fails to move us to the point of caring much what happens.
The major reason why this film fails is in its Disney-infused treatment of the war. Despite the constant terror, the bombings, and death all around, we know nothing too graphic is going to be shown. The conflict becomes insular. Sorry, that’s not the way it is.
Moreover, the treatment of Nazism becomes almost comic book. Everything in the small town is plastered with red flags and giant swastikas, constantly reminding us of the evil of this regime. If the Germans really spent so much time and so many resources putting up as many brand new flags as we see in this movie, it’s no wonder they lost the war. Realism is lost with unnecessary exaggeration.
The performances are fine, but no one really stands out. The marvelous Geoffrey Rush has very quietly become an actor to watch in just about every project he attaches himself to, but this is far from his best work. It’s not his fault, really. The milquetoast script hardly gives him a chance to Shine.
The movie does contain some nice moments, and a few surprising plot twists. Most compelling is the narration, which guides us to a destination unknown. Unfortunately, I felt the script and dialogue could have used a bit more polishing. It’s as though the movie went into production with a rough first draft and then the editor viewed the footage and walked off the job. In short, parts of the story are a mess. Characters wander in and out of the story, and we never seem to really know much about them.
True to it’s name, The Book Thief feels like a total rip off. There’s a good story and a wonderful movie somewhere within the pages, but this isn’t it.