This is a brave film. Brave in that it doesn’t shy away from showing a full range of emotion and exploring concepts of humanity, despite being a family film. Set in a bleak German town on the brink of World War II, our hero is a young girl adopted out along with her brother, who dies in the opening scene. The girl, Liesel, must then come to terms with the ups and downs of life while in a country in the grips of madness, where adults prove to be either horrible or wonderful. It is not a short film, a bit over two hours, but it is paced quite well as we watch this girl grow and come out of her shell, while the world around her descends into chaos. There are some parallels here to the classic Life is Beautiful. The Book Thief is a well produced package that is greatly respectful to the characters and the period, and makes me want to pick up the book by Aussie Markus Zusak. Include such masters of their craft as John Williams and Geoffrey Rush and you’ve got a gripping film.
The title refers to Leisel’s habit of appropriating or ‘borrowing’ books throughout her childhood, as she becomes fascinated with reading after initially being unable to. This is a catalyst for much of the development, both of characters and plot, as her love of literature gets herself in and out of various predicaments. It also helps build relationships, particularly with her adoptive father Hans, wonderfully portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, and the Jewish citizen hiding in their basement, Max, played by Ben Schnetzer straight out of acting school. The arrival of Max proves to have a major emotional impact on Leisel and her family, bringing paranoia, sadness and laughter, and softening the heart of Hans’ wife Rosa, Emily Watson. Then there is Rudy, the perfect Aryan boy from next door, who provides friendship to our young ‘thief’ when she needs it most.
Geoffrey Rush really is wonderful as the loving, but troubled, father, and he embodies the character so perfectly that it is impossible not to love him. However, much of the film rests on the shoulders of relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse, who carries it beautifully. I couldn’t imagine Liesel, who is a rather feisty girl with a huge range of emotions to deal with, being played by anyone else. Nico Liersch is also brilliant as Rudy, an excitable and curious boy who just wants a normal childhood without the trials and expectations of war. The rest of the cast hold themselves well too, and everything from the conversations to the costuming is believable. I did have a small problem with the way characters spoke like Germans speaking English, however it didn’t detract from the characters substantially.
The Book Thief really is an impressive production, but this hasn’t gone to its head. There are no in-your-face stunts or effects, most of the scenery is plain and simple, and, while the story deals with a lot of depressing events they are handled with subtlety and sense. This is backed by a beautiful, and sometimes haunting, score from the great John Williams, and narrated by Death: Roger Allam, who also narrated Inkheart. All in all, The Book Thief is a great film that will have you feeling a bunch of things, for the characters and the real people who faced such hardships. It is also one for the whole family, although young children may find it too much of a downer.