Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer
Running time: 131mins
The lowdown: Downton Abbey director Brian Percival brings Australian author Markus Zusak’s dark but cherished World War 2 children’s story to the big screen. Nelisse is the young girl forced to live with an elderly couple in Germany of the 1940s, and the Jewish refugee they’re hiding in the basement. As the war rages they all have more than just the bombers to fear as Nazi officials and informants are n ever far away. Not without problems, but a good introduction to WW2 in the tradition of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
The full verdict: Chilling the prose of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is the fact that Death itself narrates the tale of young Liesel (Nelisse), guaranteeing there won’t be happy endings all round.
Brian Percival’s adaptation retains much of Zusak’s hefty source material (including that narrator), but the chill is replaced by a chocolate box prettiness, making it cousin to those respectable lit adaptations Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Reader. And Percival’s own episodes of Downton Abbey.
Where the film scores is in the faultless performances of the cast.
Nelisse, the result of an 8-month global casting call, is perfect as the German Anne of Green Gables, bringing late-in-life joy and worry to her foster parents Hans and Rose Hubermann (Rush and Watson, previously a married couple in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers).
Ben Schnetzer, who crashed off weight for the role, brings a desperate humanity to Max, the Jewish refugee fleeing Kristallnacht and hiding in the Hubermann’s basement. But, the real discovery is Nico Liersch as Rudy, matching Nelisse for charm and mischief as Liesel’s Jesse Owens adoring paramour and confidant.
Percival matches moments of wonder (Hans introducing the illiterate Liesel to the joy of reading, a cellar-bound snowball fight) with effectively staged set-pieces (a Nazi book burning, a school song whose words suddenly turn hateful), illustrating how optimism is essential in the most poisonous of surroundings.
Bringing this qualified idealism to crooked-grinned, bittersweet life is Rush’s Hans, a man quietly outcast by acquaintances for not joining the Party and whose remorse at an act of quick, but dangerous heroism captures ever-present fear in a fascist state.
But, while an accessible entry point to WW2 for younger viewers and never less than watchable for adult audiences, The Book Thief is ultimately too Oscar showreel polished for its own good.
That it only received a lone nomination for John Williams’ lush score suggests a little more darkness and a little less gloss may have better served the story.