Judge Patrick Naugle swears he only stole picture books.
Based on the best selling young adult novel.
While traveling by train with her communist mother, little Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse, in her first American film) finds her world shattered when her brother passes away en route. Liesel's mother, who has ties to a communist party, arrives at her destination to drop her young daughter off with Hans (Geoffrey Rush, Quills) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson, Red Dragon) in a small German town for safekeeping. Although Rosa is stiff and stern, Hans has a softer side for his new "daughter," and shares with her his love of words and reading. Under the looming banner of the Nazi regime, Liesel finds her new home both exciting and frightening, meeting new friends along the way, including a Jew named Max (Ben Scnetzer, Happy Town) who she bonds with immediately. With the treat of air raids and basement checks by the Nazi soldiers ever looming, Liesel attempts to find meaning with her newly acquired foster parents, and in a war that will take away more than just Liesel's innocence.
Book burning has provided Hollywood with plenty of angry fodder over the years. From Ray Bradbury's classic Farenheit 451 (which was turned into a 1966 film) to popular hits like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Dr. Jones running into Hitler himself), the idea of destroying important cultural literature for the intention of evil has offered no shortage of story ideas for the cinema. Although it isn't the central moment of The Book Thief (even if it's in the title), the theme of taking something important and beautiful and destroying it runs through the entire length of the film.
The Book Thief, written by Austrian author Markus Zusak, became an enormous hit in the realm of adult young fiction in 2005 and spent over 230 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Clearly the novel struck a chord with fans, and as is usually the case, Hollywood came calling. Personally, I had never heard of the The Book Thief until it became a 2013 film, and even during its release it seems that no one I knew went to see it. For a book that is so revered and beloved, it appears that the movie essentially came and went in theaters without as much of a ripple. Due to the film's limited theatrical run, it didn't become the smash hit many insiders expected (nor did it win or become nominated for any awards, which is what the studio executives were hoping for). Unlike the book, which saw its popularity skyrocket over the years, the film adaptation seems to have come and gone like a proverbial thief in the night.
I can see why The Book Thief didn't become the overnight cinematic sensation many studio executives had hoped for. The movie is laboriously slow, punctuated with moments of interest that never offer enough escape from the monotony of the story. There's a somber pall that is cast over the film, which isn't very surprising considering it takes place in the least happy place in human history (Germany in 1938). Complicating matters is the fact that the German location seems to be almost picturesque in its depiction of Nazi infested Germany; take away the bad guys and the street where the film takes place almost has a Norman Rockwell-like quality to it. In other words, none of the buildings—or even the people—seem like they're going through one of the worst periods of America's history. Everything in The Book Thief appears to have been almost totally Hollywood-ized.
If I have any high praise for The Book Thief, it's that the performances are all well above average. Geoffrey Rush—that hound dog-faced actor who seems to sway between cheesy B-films (House on Haunted Hill), big budget action movies (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), and riveting drama (The King's Speech)—finds just the right balance in his performance, enough so that I thought it was ripe for an Oscar nomination. Rush gives a gentle, warm, and amusing performance as the good natured Hans Hubermann. Rush is truly the heart of the film, giving viewers a much needed smile throughout a film that s constantly filled with sadness. Complimenting his performance is Emily Watson as his gruff wife, who runs a tight ship with a sharp tongue. Although relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse does a decent job with her role, she's all but eclipsed by Rush and Watson's masterful work in the film.
There are moments when The Book Thief truly shines, but the parts never add up to a cohesive whole. The moments of levity—including a snowball flight in the chilly, dank basement of Hubermann's home—quickly give way to melodrama, which makes the shift so abrupt that it's hard to keep up. Director Brian Percivel (who's biggest work includes directing multiples episodes of Downton Abbey) gives the film a polished look, but comes up short in the end, especially considering how mediocre the screenplay feels (written by The Rite's Micheal Petroni). When I initially sat down to watch The Book Thief, I wasn't sure what to expect. Unfortunatly, aside of a few good performances and a fine score by composer John Williams (Jurassic Park), it's a movie that doesn't live up to its source material.
Presented in 2.40:1/1080p HD widescreen, Fox's The Book Thief (Blu-ray) is lush and vibrant, especially the opening moments where the camera tracks a train through a bitterly cold winter scene. Fans of the film will be thrilled with how flawless this transfer is. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a largely dialogue driven, though there are moments when the surround sounds kick in nicely. The biggest boost comes from John Williams's lush, evocative film score. Also included on this disc are Dolby 5.1 tracks in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Turkish, a DTS 5.1 Audio mix in Russian, and subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Turkish, and Ukrainian.
Bonus features include a few deleted scenes, a featrette ("A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life "), the trailer, and a digital copy of the film.
Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, The Book Thief makes for a sluggish evening's worth of entertainment. Fans of the novel may be pleased, but I have the feeling it fails to capture what readers loved most about Zusak's story.
A glossy version of World War II.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2014 Patrick Naugle; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.