The Book Thief

Smart older kids might buy this too cosy depiction of Germany’s descent into fascism

The Book Thief - trailer

Film Title: The Book Thief

Director: Brian Percival

Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Nico Liersch, Emily Watson, Geoffrey Rush

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 131 min

Fri, Feb 28, 2014, 00:00


The current season always generates a few stranded orphans: films knocked up in the Oscar-nominee style that slip beneath the voters’ radar.

You could hardly imagine a more characteristic example of the species than this modestly entertaining historical drama from Downton Abbey alumnus Brian Percival. It’s set in the second World War. It’s based on a big, middle-brow best-seller. The producers even lured John Williams – nominated for 48 Oscars to this point – from semi-retirement to write the tolerable score. The Academy duly granted Williams a 49th nod and passed on the rest of the talent.

The nicest thing you could say about The Book Thief is that it’s hard to entirely resist. A great many nice actors help a humanistic story unfold in old-fashioned linear style. The only great innovation (a voiceover by Death in the sonorous form of Roger Allam) is treated as an annoying literary hangover that must be fleetingly acknowledged, but not over-indulged. Otherwise, this is heritage cinema of the most soothing stripe.

None of which is to suggest that big themes are not being addressed. The picture concerns young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), the daughter of communists, who is dispatched by the Nazi authorities to foster parents in a mid-sized German town.

Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann form a perfectly complementary couple. He is a good-hearted dreamer who makes a scanty living as a sign writer. She is a frustrated tyrant who, we suspect, may harbour a heart of gold beneath the harsh exterior.

Liesel has arrived with a volume – a gravediggers’ handbook, as it transpires – that she picked up at the burial of her young brother, but she is unable to read. As Hans teaches her, they begin to develop a bond. Meanwhile Rosa waits impatiently for the event that will reveal to us her vigorously repressed decency.

Before then, the second World War must intervene. Liesel and her pal are inducted into the Hitler Youth. Book burnings take place in the town square. Eventually they end up sheltering a young Jewish man in the basement.

As a director of Downton Abbey , Percival knows a thing or two about polishing rough edges of period pieces. Though prepared to do away with key characters in a trice, The Book Thief offers an extraordinarily clean and unthreatening take on the Third Reich’s slow decline. Yes, a town bully throws around his anti-Semitic weight. True, Hans must eventually head off to war. Through it all, however, the film retains the slightly icky charm of a tune-free Sound of Music .

Watson and Rush bounce off one another very effectively, but, trapped in sets that look like sets and costumes that look like costumes, they never seem like anything other than animated personality traits. Nélisse’s unmistakable talent is somewhat smothered by the prettiness of her makeup and the dewy beauty of Florian Ballhaus’s cinematography.

Then again, The Book Thief is, perhaps, a victim of its own marketing. Like the film of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas , this picture makes most sense as a drama for intelligent older children. Indeed, that was the target audience of Zusak’s novel. Such films very rarely make it into cinemas these days. So the studio has repackaged the unfortunate thing as a tearjerker for general audiences.

On those terms, The Book Thief must be accounted a failure: even Downton fans will find the rampant cosiness just a little hard to bear. There are, however, younger people out there who will find much to distract them. If you wanted faint praise, then you’ve got it.