Pretty much all of the ingredients needed for a big Oscar contender are contained within The Book Thief…there’s just something else missing that ties it all in together and makes it work. If that sounds like a vague sort of complaint about Brian Percival‘s film, well…it is. I left the movie knowing that I’d seen something well made for the most part, but with enough odd flaws that not only do I not think it’s an awards player, I don’t even think it’s recommendation worthy. Now, that’s not to say that the film is bad, just that it’s lacking in a few ways. The strong suite of the flick is its acting, led by up and comer Sophie Nélisse and veteran actor Geoffrey Rush. Percival and scribe Michael Petroni are much more of a mixed bag though, leading to what I can only assume will be a disappointing adaptation of the much loved Markus Zusak novel of the same name to many. Though it could make a play in Best Original Score for the legend that is John Williams (I think it’s hard to bet against him getting nominated regardless of what project he’s involved with), I think the other categories will be long shots at best. Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t think that The Book Thief is up to Oscar snuff…
Set during World War II and narrated by Death (voice of Roger Allam, but yes, Death…more on that later though), we’re told the story of Liesel (Nélisse), a girl subjected to almost all of the horrors of the Second World War in Germany. After losing her entire family, she’s sent to live with adoptive parents Hans (Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel’s one comfort in life is stealing books, even though she can’t read. She bonds with Hans over learning to read, though life just gets more complicated when Hans and Rosa begin hiding a Jewish refugee named Max (Ben Schnetzer). Obviously there will be close calls and strong connections formed throughout, but always with this odd mix of dread and hope funneled through. I know that’s not an incredibly unusual mix in a movie set around WWII, but for some reason the recipe just seems off here. Even when the third act goes for tears, I found myself feeling removed from everything in a way that I’m usually not, especially in similar films to this one. Like I said, the brew is just off.
Sophie Nélisse is well on her way to having a nice career, as she’s got a world of talent. Mainly recognizable to some from her role in Monsieur Lazhar, this should open her up to a new group of admirers. Nélisse is very effective in the movie, so none of my complaints are about her. In fact, the scenes of her and Geoffrey Rush are the best the film has to offer. Rush is quiet and charming all throughout, to the point where he’d likely be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor if this flick was headed to the Best Picture lineup. Since it’s likely not though, I think he misses out. Nélisse and Rush are easily the highlights here. Emily Watson is decent but a bit too one note for me, while Ben Schnetzer is solid but forgettable. Watson especially just doesn’t have enough to do. Other supporting parts include the aforementioned voice of Roger Allam as Death, plus the likes of Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, Rainer Bock, Oliver Stokowski, Matthias Matschke, and Heike Makatsch. Still, it’s those first two, Nélisse and Rush, who leave their mark on you. The film fell short of my expectations, but their performances sure didn’t.
Director Brian Percival gives the movie a nice polished look, but he also contributes to a really poor pace. I’m not sure how much blame needs to also go at scribe Michael Petroni’s feet, but I found myself often very bored by the film. It starts out decently well and ends on a solid note, but it had already lost me by then. Also…I know that Death is the narrator in the novel too, but here it just doesn’t work at all. Not one bit. It’s a little creepy and repeatedly pulled me out of the story. I almost deducted another half of a star due to how much it bugged me. I might be alone there in that complaint, but I doubt it. The aforementioned score by Williams is very good, but it’s not one of his career bests or anything of that sort. The saving grace for Percival is the performances by Nélisse and Rush, but Petroni’s work just left me wanting more the whole way through. Maybe a more ambitious director would have hidden the screenplay’s flaws for me, or maybe a different writer would have helped with the pacing, but neither occurred, so this is just what I was left with.
Removed from the awards race, The Book Thief is a disappointing yet watchable melodrama about survival during World War II. When you factor in that it’s Oscar season however, it just magnifies how far removed this is from the top tier of 2013 awards hopefuls. There are things to like here, but my complaints are what stayed with me more since I saw it a few weeks ago as opposed to the pleasures on display. You can definitely do worse at the movies this month than with The Book Thief, but I assure you, you can do better as well..
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!