The Book Thief Movie Review
The Book Thief is an uplifting tale not unlike "Reading Rainbow," in which an orphan girl learns to read under the tutelage of her foster parents, resists the advances of her charming Aryan best friend and discovers new things about the world. Like that she is a German in the 1930's, the Nazis like to burn books and that in a story narrated by Death, only Death would consider The Book Thief an uplifting tale.
Young Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse delivers a fine performance as the 10-year old Liesel, who largely carries the film. She balances childlike innocence with toughness not uncommon in girls that age, embodying a character that is believably set in a world that is slowly disintegrating around her. While her character (and that of Rudy Steiner, played with earnest by Nico Liersch) sometimes acts too naïve to the circumstances at hand (yes, even for a 10-year old), she quickly develops a rapport that engages the audience and keeps them interested.
Though it's Nélisse who carries the movie, it is Geoffrey Rush as her father who, unsurprisingly, stands out. Both the emotional and humorous core of the movie, Rush does a terrific job given every opportunity. Co-star Emily Watson also does a fine job, though her character and performance plays second fiddle to Rush.
The movie itself is surprisingly engaging, at least for a while, and I say "surprisingly" because even though the movie is based on a widely praised book, I never had any interest in it for no particular reason whatsoever. So, thankfully, The Book Thief is wistfully entertaining for much of its run time, though its strengths are also its weaknesses.
The Book Thief never comes on too heavy handed, nor does it come on too heavy, a marvel considering the movie is set in Germany during the rise and eventual fall of the Nazis. Viewed from a child's perspective, though narrated by Death (perhaps not so coincidentally sounding like a British dude), the story refuses to address head on any of the war-related things that occur, from the Nazi youth army to the segregation of Jews. The film's innocent approach is endearing and works in many ways, but ultimately the movie feels dishonest or at least overly restrained in the way it depicts the Second World War. None of this is too troubling until the movie arrives at its tragic climax, which should have been incredibly emotional but instead is merely worthy of a shrug and a "that's sort of sad" wave of the hand. After all, it's hard to get too invested in lives and deaths when the filmmakers don't want you to until it's convenient for them.
Beyond that, The Book Thief also loses much of its steam in the third act. I can't place my finger on it, but as much as I was pleasantly surprised during the first two thirds of the movie, my attention waned toward the end. At 131 minutes, The Book Thief is probably 20 minutes too long given the material; tighter editing and storytelling would have helped tremendously.
The Book Thief is not a masterpiece and far from it; its depiction of Nazi Germany feels safe and restrained, which in turn makes the story and characters feel safe and restrained. Nonetheless, it is a largely entertaining and likable tale with solid performances, a viable rental by any definition.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.