It’s a dead week for the movies. The biggest thing coming out is Best Man Holiday, and we didn’t see that. Instead, since it’s opening wide today, we’ve got a review for The Book Thief, which has the dubious title of “Movie With the Worst Trailer of the Year.” That trailer is easily the most desperate Oscar plea ever. “From the studio that brought Life of Pi”? Really?
So clearly The Book Thief, which is based on the book of the same name, is going for some sort of Oscar grab, but you may have noticed it’s not really getting much buzz. The reason for that is pretty obvious: it’s callous, predictable and not very good.
The Book Thief
Director: Brian Percival
Release Date: November 8, 2013
The Book Thief is based on a young adult novel in which the narrator, Death, recounts the story of Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), a girl living in Germany during WWII, and her adoptive parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). As you can guess, the war comes to their town, as it did all of Germany, and things start to unravel as the family takes in the son of a Jewish friend, Nico (Nico Liersch). Rudy hides in the basement as Liesel grows up throughout the years, pilfering a book or two there. The two most important aspects to remember about the book is that it was geared towards young adults and that death narrated the entire thing.
Neither of those things happen in full in the film, and it makes it one of the most heavy-handed films of the year. Death begins narrating the movie, spewing a few well-known lines from the book, and then almost completely disappears for the rest of the film only to pop up at the very end to deliver the film’s message. It’s lazy screenwriting and turns what could have been an interesting slant on the very-tired WWII genre into a gimmick that feels more desperate than heartfelt. If the filmmakers had either ditched the Death narration altogether or gone with it full tilt, it may have worked, but here it just seems crass.
Secondly, since the film isn’t geared towards young adults, its over-simplification of an incredibly complex and emotionally challenging subject makes it feel like it’s simply playing on heart strings instead of actually trying to say something. As the story unfolds and each big emotional hit comes, the predictability and simplicity of the relationships in the film seem less and less human and more and more like someone trying to make people cry. That treatment may have worked in the book, which would intentionally keep things light, but the film doesn’t try to be light. Instead, it ditches its young adult roots and goes full boor into being a “real” film. The ironic thing is that by doing exactly that, they ditch what could have made the film actually click and becomes more disingenuous instead of less.
I’m not saying you won’t cry during this film. Every moment of it is geared to make you feel emotions and please a crowd with its deep meaning. It’s just so incredibly obviously done that you can’t help but roll your eyes at each moment. Director Brian Percival, who is best known for Downtown Abbey episodes, has the subtlety of a rhino barging into a bathroom stall and the directorial creativity of an unconscious buffalo. There’s nothing here to grab you and command you to pay attention. Instead, the film is full of cameras being plunked down in front of actors and over-dramatic lighting. It all looks like it was designed by a committee on what will make movie theater audiences cry, but not be truly upset by anything.
The actors that the camera is plunked down in front of are the film’s saving grace. It’s no surprise that Geoffrey Rush is wonderful, because he’s Geoffrey Rush, but Emily Watson goes toe-to-toe with him wonderfully as Liesel’s cantankerous, but lovable (oh the cliches) mother. Nélisse is also fantastic and would be my vote to replace the over-rated Chloe Grace Mortez in the pale, blonde child star category. While the scenes may not be executed that well she still has some challenging moments to pull of and does almost flawlessly.
If its crassness and dull direction don’t get you, then The Book Thief could harbor some meaning for you after seeing it since it does involve Nazis, WWII, the holocaust and death. It’s just that these things are subjects best left to people with the skills to cover them, not to films that feel like grabs at Oscars with the emotional depth of bird baths. At the end of the film, Death comments that he sees humanity’s beauty and ugliness and always wonders how the same thing can be both. Well, The Book Thief isn’t both. It’s just ugly.