The number of films set during WWII and concerning Germany’s treatment of the Jews is so high that tackling the subject all but necessitates a fresh approach. Quentin Tarantino understood this concept, and though few filmmakers are on his level of originality, the makers of The Book Thief appear hesitant to make any lasting mark. Based on the novel by Marcus Zusak, whose words took creative risks in line with Mr. Tarantino’s mindset, Brian Percival’s film hints in multiple ways of stepping beyond familiarity, though haphazardly pieces these promising components together. With the exception of a few memorable shots, the visuals and performances are made-for-TV quality, and though the story is technically a good one, screenwriter Michael Petroni’s average presentation blunts its potential.
In what should be its unique angle, the film is narrated by death (Roger Allam), unseen beyond his occasional handiwork. Instead of playing up this notion, however, his comments are infrequently inserted, often with lengthy stretches in between. Sly lines of being Hitler’s most effective soldier add much-needed zest and tease what could have been a smart storytelling device, but have the opposite result in this capacity. Allum’s unrecognizable voice makes the narration less ominous and with it popping up less often than Alec Baldwin’s in The Royal Tenenbaums, the approach is ineffective and almost always distracts from the otherwise straightforward style.
The Book Thief likewise tries to establish itself though slice-of-life moments of pre-war Germany and the joy of learning to read and later write stories as experienced by young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Without the edge that death’s narration might provide, the small town happenings are fairly dull and, despite Liesel’s smiles, the lessons from her adopted father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) are far too saccharine to work. This weak foundation isn’t helped by the familiar premise of hiding Jewish friend of the family Max (Ben Schnetzer) in the basement. It’s a predicament practically cliché in such a story, and with the barely explored notion of Max’s father sacrificing his life for Hans in the first World War, the situation assumes it’s on the level of more daring works without putting forth the effort.
Additionally limiting the film’s power is a cast full of poor child performances. Nélisse, who made a far greater impact as young student Alice in Monsieur Lazhar, has a sharp, movie star face, but not the chops to carry a lead performance. Similar dramatic shortcomings plague her yellow-haired sprinter friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) and their ‘tween peers, each of whom struggle with their German accents. With this youthful perspective the film’s last great hope for distinction, these tepid actors officially seal its fate and reduce the promising tale to mediocrity.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.
The Book Thief is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.