Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Book Thief - Movie Review

Like Life is Beautiful, this is a movie that succeeds mostly on charm. And despite my bone-deep cynicism about almost everything, The Book Thief crept under my guard. True: it's a story-book vision of a fairy-tale Germany, complete with WWII movie conventions from a different age - hidden Jew, book-burning, over-the-top score, stodgy, sanitized settings - but it turns these things to its advantage, creating not a children-in-wartime film, but a children's film. While the setting is somewhat idealized, I found it beautiful enough to sweep away concerns about realism.

It's based on a book:

Liesel Meminger is a young girl in World War II Germany, who steals her first book from the frozen graveside of her brother. Abandoned, she is taken in by a pair of quirky but affectionate foster parents, with whom she is to endure the war. Her love of words and stories gives her hope in a world where childhood is quickly unraveling.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. The story is given another twist, however, by the fantastical, mythical background, which lends a sweeping, universal feel to the narrative. I've read (and reviewed) the book - and this is not a very good adaptation, at least when it comes to that element. It's lighter, cleaner, and has a completely different tone. Given his iconic status, Death is still the narrator, but this doesn't work on-screen, feeling instead intrusive and arbitrary, if not silly. (It's not helped by the fact that I've seen the actor in other things, and he's got a teddy-bear face, not to mention his rolling, sonorous voice.)

But though it's not a good adaptation, it's not a bad film. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are casting genius (seriously - see the movie for them if nothing else); they're perfect as Liesel's foster parents: warm-hearted Hans Hubermann, and his fierce wife Rosa. Even Ben Schnetzer as Max eventually won me over. I suspect the two child actors will split opinions - they're both too young and angelic for the roles (though Liesel ages quite well), but I only rarely found them too saccharine. Confession here: I sometimes think children with foreign accents can get away with a lot more kitschiness than Americans can.

Looking back over my review of the book, I see that the film solves some problems while perpetuating others. On the one hand - it provides a little more basis for the characters' benevolence, while on the other, the ending, which I didn't like in the book as it lacked closure, works even less here.

Overall, it was a refreshingly optimistic look at humanity - and unlike Life is Beautiful, it gives us pictures of hope, but not hope sprung of ignorance, an illusion only - but something more tangible and everlasting. Haunting, even.

3.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

1 comment:

  1. This movie is actually on my "watch next" list. I saw the trailer, and I actually just found the book at the library last Saturday. I'm very intrigued about the story. And when I saw the trailer, I was also excited to see Geoffrey Rush. He's a great actor.


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