Movie review: ‘Book Thief’ is a botched book-to-screen adaptation

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICENovember 29, 2013 

Film Review The Book Thief

Sophie Nelisse, Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush in “The Book Thief.”

  • THE BOOK THIEF

    ••

    Rated: PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material. Starring: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch. Director: Brian Percival. Running time: 131 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 12 in Nampa, Majestic 18 and Village Cinema in Meridian.

Whatever virtues turned “The Book Thief” into an acclaimed and honored international best-seller are strangely absent from the film adaptation.

A sad orphan’s story bereft of emotion, a paean to books that does precious little to pass that on to the viewer, a Holocaust tale where the Holocaust has been sanitized and washed out of the story — it’s a flat exercise in re-creating a place and time but not really “getting” the point of it all.

Director Brian Percival, a veteran of “Downton Abbey,” tips his hand early. Little Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is on her way to a new family with her younger brother. The brother dies, en route — and she, and we, feel … nothing.

Since the tale is narrated, ironically by “Death” (Roger Allam), we wonder if that’s not perhaps the point.

“When the time comes,” Death says of his arrival, “don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.”

“The Book Thief” is about Liesel’s life in an unnamed small German city from 1938-45. She arrives, 11 years old and illiterate. Her kindly stepdad, Hans (Geoffrey Rush), an accordion-playing house painter and handyman, gently tricks “Your Majesty” — as he calls her — into learning to read. Her grumpy new stepmother Rosa (Emily Watson) tolerates this, and not much else.

But neighbor boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) is smitten. And no amount of bullying, no number of brush-offs can keep him from Liesel’s side. They witness Germany’s slide into World War II together.

Liesel’s past comes out, and the Nazis show their true colors as Jews flee or are rounded up. A few chilling moments come from Liesel’s Hitler Youth uniform and their child anthems, about rejecting “non-Germanic” citizens and the book burning. The Nazis liked to burn books. Liesel, instinctively, sees this for the crime it is.

Percival, working from a Michael Petroni script of the Markus Zusak novel, finds fun in Liesel rescuing a book from a bonfire. But Percival is at a loss about what to do with the Holocaust and a major character, Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew whom we see flee the country, yet somehow come back and require sheltering by Liesel’s new family.

Whatever kudos it deserves for historical accuracy are lost in a tedious parade of cliches, a flat film experience served up in a two-hour-plus helping.

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