The Book Thief
dir Brian Percival
scr Michael Petroni
prd Ken Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt
with Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, Oliver Stokowski, Levin Liam, Carina Wiese, Rainer Bock, Matthias Matschke, Roger Allam
release US 8.Nov.13, UK 14.Feb.14, Ger 13.Feb.14
13/Germany Fox 2h11
The Book Thief
Youthful energy: Nelisse and Liersch

rush watson allam
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The Book Thief A strong story is so softened that it struggles to properly register as a story about the dangers of defying Nazi rule. From the beginning, it feels more like a cautionary bedtime story than something that might have plausibly happened. So it's impossible to feel much of anything beyond vague fascination.

In 1938 Germany, feisty 12-year-old Leisel (Nelisse) is taken from her mother, who's accused of being communist, and given to Hans and Rosa (Rush and Watson). The optimistic, imaginative Hans makes Leisel feel at home and teaches her to read, but Rosa is a relentless grump. Leisel also befriends athletic neighbour boy Rudy (Liersch). Later, she steals books from Nazi book-burnings and, even more daringly, from the mayor (Bock), whose wife (Auer) covers for her. Meanwhile, Hans and Rosa hide Max (Schnetzer), a Jewish young man who encourages Leisel to start writing her own story.

The story is full of dark corners and strong characters, although all of the edges are dulled by the filmmaking style, which leaves the town looking like a snowy wonderland film set. Oddest of all is the jaunty narration by Death (Allam), which turns Nazi atrocities and Allied bombs into some sort of fatalistic eventuality. Yes, director Percival inadvertently turns brutal murder into poetic justice. Which is more than a little disturbing, in all the wrong ways.

Fortunately the characters and themes transcend this eerily nice filmmaking approach. It's still horrifying to see violence break out against people because of their ethnic heritage. And there's a potent kick in the underlying story of a young girl discovering both the joys of reading and the limitless power of the imagination. Scenes are also packed with lovely literary touches that put the silly joys of a basement snowball fight into perspective.

What holds all of this together is Watson's wonderfully prickly performance, which shows cracks of humanity when least expected. The cheery Rush and radiant Nelisse are more likeable, but essentially one-note. As the story continues, the grotesque carnage escalates in eerily non-violent ways (bodies laid out in the streets are peaceful and completely intact). The intention was clearly not to upset children in the audience, but it only contributes to the film's artificiality. And it undercuts the story's message about looking for truth.

cert 12 themes, violence 20.Nov.13

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© 2013 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall