Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Movie Review: The Book Thief (2014)

Of all the films to have come out of the big YA adaptation boom of late, I can safely say that I would never have expected this one. However, I can at least semi-understand the decision behind this on two fronts. Firstly, the third-wave of YA adaptations has been largely focused on dark, totalitarian and/or post-apocalyptic settings, so it only stands to reason that a setting from our own history that unfortunately fits into that category would be considered. Secondly, films set in Nazi Germany are easy Oscar bait. So, given this criteria, today’s film was one designed not only to appease the Academy crowd but also as a sleeper agent to get the attention of teens who likely would have read or are currently reading the source material for school… what could possibly go wrong? This is The Book Thief.

The plot: Liesel (played by Sophie Nélisse), a child living in Germany during the Nazi regime, learns to read from her adoptive father Hans (played by Geoffrey Rush). She ‘borrows’ books to sate her curiosity for literature, sharing both the books and the stories within them with others, while trying to keep it secret from the Nazis.

While this is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Aussie author Markus Zusak, I won’t be talking about differences between texts because… I haven’t read it yet. Yeah, while the other English class at my high school got The Book Thief, we got The Great Gatsby and considering how crap the adaptation for that turned out, I feel more than a little gypped on that one. Nevertheless, this will purely be a review on the film and how it stands on its own. However, I am partially familiar with Zusak’s style due to reading The Messenger back in school, and the writing here definitely feels like it was adapted from one of his books. Several of Zusak’s stories deal with how much seemingly small acts of kindness can mean to others and we definitely get that here, even when talking about the personification of Death. Death as the narrator, played by Roger “This is my redemption for being in Speed Racer” Allam, can sound a tad pretentious at times but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work to the film’s advantage. His quips about the nature of man, meeting people when they pass on, as well as his workload during wartime and especially during World War II, add a lot to the overall story. My favourite line from the film is one of his: “It’s probably fair to say that no-one was able to serve the Fuhrer as loyally as me.” Your mileage may vary but I found that to be a truly inspired bit of narration, as I’m a bit of a sucker for interesting takes on characters we normally consider to be wholly evil like Death or the Devil. Not only that, the story does a really good job at intertextuality; given how the plot largely centers on reading, there are a lot of novels mentioned and they all have some form of significance in terms of the story proper. It’s a neat bit of subtext that is worth reading into a bit. (I’ll hit myself later for that one)

The acting is mostly good, although we are dealing with quite a few child actors who are… questionable, to put it politely. However, I will admit that the two main child actors, Sophie Nélisse as Liesel and Nico Liersch as Rudy, do very well in their roles. We also get some great performances from Liesel’s parents, with the aforementioned Geoffrey Rush being just about the most heart-warming man on Earth and Emily Watson as Rosa who starts out as an old battle axe but becomes a bit softer and even uses her grouchiness as a veneer in one of the film’s more touching scenes. Roger Allam, as his role in Speed Racer definitely showed, can sell pretty much any script he’s given and it’s largely because of him that the narration doesn’t come off more pretentious than it does. He has just the right voice to make the narration work, as a lesser actor probably would have come across like he was reading from Trent Reznor’s private journal.

The only real downside here, aside from the child acting, is the pacing. The story is meant to take place over the course of a few years, and yet we only get two road markers to show that any of that is happening; the passage of time is barely hinted at here and it makes things feel disjointed in the awkward moments when they do bring up how many years have passed.

All in all, while I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed that this wasn’t better, this is still a very good movie. The acting is good where it counts, the writing comes from a very good place and the production quality is exactly what one would expect from a film that is meant to win awards. Don’t let the term ‘Oscar bait’ completely throw you off, as this is at least a movie that deserves all of the drama that it wrings out. This goes above the dub of Dragon Ball Z: Battle Of Gods, as I personally prefer films that give me more to chew on in terms of subtext, but below John Wick, which as a film felt a lot more immersive. If the subject matter doesn’t get to you, then I definitely recommend checking this one out.

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