2013 was a good year for cinema, so it’s not hard to see why this fairly run-of-the-mill war drama feels somewhat overlooked and under-loved (despite its Oscar nomination for John Williams’ score).
We follow Liesel, a girl placed into a German foster home in WWII, and her stand-in parents, played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. They harbour a Jewish man in their basement, and face the risks involved with such a crime at that time. Liesel likes to steal books, another thing frowned upon by the Nazis, and finds solace in their contents.
The Book Thief is great on so many fronts. The score is Oscar nominated. It’s beautifully shot. The set design is well executed with a good attention to detail. It’s wonderfully acted; Rush and Watson are always great, and Sophie Nélisse gives a pitch perfect performance as Liesel. She’s naive but brave, and makes the character believable in a way many have failed before her.
However, unlike Liesel, the film as a whole seems to lack heart. It’s a repetitive screenplay, and the supporting characters are short changed. Max, the Jewish refugee in the basement comes to mind. He’s central to Liesel’s life, yet seems to just sit in the basement offering words of wisdom to her. There’s no real emotional connection between the two, despite the script saying that there is. Liesel’s friend Rudy is also carelessly written, almost to the point where we just don’t care what happens to him.
This is a film that’s hard to fault, yet it’s not captivating enough to care about. The all-important ending feels procedural and dry, perhaps a little rushed. There’s a lack of effort where it counts, and an over-reliance on the talents of the cast and crew, when what we want to see is an impactful drama.
Worth a watch if you like war dramas, but The Book Thief is otherwise a waste of potential.