If you want an Oscar, an easy route is to write, direct, or star in a film about World War II. Audiences love the sense of triumph derived from a small personal story within the larger context of conflict, and they’ll tend to stick with the story even if its message about the strength of moral character in the face of evil seems stale and clichéd. Moviegoers eat that stuff up – usually. Every now and then a movie gets it wrong though, and at the point the schmaltz just becomes so thick the audience can’t choke it down, and that’s where The Book Thief gets caught. It goes down the checklist and marks everything off, but it does so with such an obvious and mechanical manner that the sentimental moments feel cold and overly calculated.
Amidst the growingly hostile nationalism fueled by the Nazi party in Germany, the young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) settles in to her new life with new parents (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson) after her mother sent her away. As Liesel becomes accustomed to her new school and life in the city, she grows fascinated with the written word, and soon her new father is teaching her to read. It’s a task made more difficult by the rise in book burnings by the Nazi party, which inspires Liesel to rescue any books she can from the literary funeral pyres and share them with anyone who will listen (without reporting her to the authorities). Her rebellious and curious spirit finds kinship in her new parents who have a similar secret of their own.
Have you ever felt like a film was trying way too hard to make an audience applaud? That’s the tone of The Book Thief from start to finish. It’s sincerity goes only as far as necessary to make people feel good about the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversity in small ways, and then it stops abruptly lest it say anything too profound or unique that might make people take notice of it and study it with any real scrutiny. The performances are all quite good, it’s just that the script has them saying and acting out all of the most clichéd characters a WWII film could have. Nelisse’s character takes a little bit longer to fall into one of the stock characters, but by the end she’s that cookie cutter child embodiment of all the things we should never let society oppress.
The Book Thief has all of the right visual production values that you’d expect from an Academy Award-worthy film, but none of the necessary effort where it’s needed most: in the script.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The combo pack includes the film on Blu-ray and as an Ultraviolet digital copy, with extras of featurettes about adapting The Book Thief from book to film, the film’s historical truth, the film’s inspiration, the soundtrack, and deleted scenes.
"The Book Thief" is on sale March 11, 2014 and is rated PG13. Drama, War. Directed by Brian Percival. Written by Markus Zusak, Michael Petroni. Starring Emily Watson, Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nelisse.