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Movie Review

The Book Thief

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Director: Brian Percival

Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer

Duration: 131 minutes

Certificate 12A

1 of 5 Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush play Liesel and her foster father Hans
Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush play Liesel and her foster father Hans
2 of 5 Rush is warm and expressive as Hans
Rush is warm and expressive as Hans
3 of 5 Ben Schnetzer plays a young Jewish man who hides in the family's basement
Ben Schnetzer plays a young Jewish man who hides in the family's basement
4 of 5 Emily Watson is excellent as Rosa
Emily Watson is excellent as Rosa
5 of 5 Rush and Nélisse have great on-screen chemistry
Rush and Nélisse have great on-screen chemistry

Director Brian Percival, who is probably best known for directing episodes of the phenomenally popular Downton Abbey, was tasked with adapting Markus Zusak's best-selling young-adult book for the big screen.

Giving such a universally adored novel as The Book Thief the cinematic treatment was never going to be easy, and this well-meaning but protracted, and at times dull, adaptation may leave some fans cold.

Set in World War II Germany, we meet a young girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), as she is packed off to her new foster parents in a rural village. Step in kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and severe Rosa (Emily Watson), who take the feisty and inquisitive girl under their wing.

Liesel's classmates taunt her when they discover that she is illiterate, and a scuffle in the schoolyard ignites her wish to learn to read. Hans is more than happy to teach her and fuel her love of books. However, their new lives are complicated when a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), turns up at their doorstep looking for help.

As the Nazis tighten their grip on the German population, and the effects of the war are felt on everyone, the family risk their lives to conceal Max in their basement.

It has the makings of a great film – encompassing historical events such as Kristallnacht, Nazi book-burning rallies and Jewish deportations – but the sanitised treatment and uneven pacing let the side down.

The performances, however, impress across the board. Rush and Watson are both excellent in their roles – particularly the former who brings warmth and levity to the tale – while Nélisse is sure to garner much attention for her portrayal of Liesel. 

As in the book, the story is narrated by Death, a device that doesn't really work here and easily could have been dropped. And the handsome cinematography lends the film an appearance that contrasts too sharply with the atrocities hinted at outside.

The Book Thief ultimately tries too hard to shine a positive light on a horrific period in history.

Sarah McIntyre

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