12 February 2014

"I Don't Steal — I Borrow"

"One small fact," opines the narrator, as The Book Thief opens. "You are going to die." Well, with that cheerful thought, let's head off to Nazi Germany in 1938 for some, er, light relief? I haven't read Markus Zusak's novel on which Brian Percival's new film is based, but I saw a trailer for the movie a few weeks ago and thought it sounded interesting, so I signed up for a preview screening last night.

At the start of the film, our young heroine Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is on a journey to a new foster home, when her brother dies suddenly. Liesel picks up a book from the graveyard and keeps it to remind her of her brother, even though she can't read. Her new foster parents are the Hubermanns: the dour Rosa (Emily Watson) and the jovial, accordion-playing Hans (Geoffrey Rush). They are being paid to take in Liesel, whose mother is suspected of being a communist, and Rosa is initially hard on the girl because the death of her brother means they receive less money. Hans is more welcoming, however, and he begins to teach Liesel how to read: they start with her rescued book, which turns out to be a guide to grave-digging, before moving on to more literary works.

Liesel has a few run-ins with the school bully, but becomes firm friends with her cheerful blonde neighbour Rudy (Nico Liersch). Life returns to normal. Well, normal for late-1930s Germany. But then Liesel's foster parents agree to take in Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of an old friend of Hans's to whom Hans's accordion belonged. Max is Jewish and seriously unwell after months on the run from the Nazis. He hides out in the Hubermanns' basement and strikes up an unexpected friendship with Liesel: he challenges her to describe what is happening in the outside world in imaginative ways and she reads to him the books she steals — borrows — from the library at the Burgermeister's house.

Around them, the world is changing fast as World War II begins and nothing is certain any longer. Books are burned, basements are searched and people are taken away for having one n too few at the end of their name. For Liesel, who has already lost so much in her life, the thought of something happening to her new friends and family is unbearable.

Overall, I enjoyed The Book Thief. At 130 minutes, it is a little long and the pacing felt slightly odd at times — many small or medium events that weren't anchored by big turning points. Part of the problem is the narrator (voiced here by Roger Allam), an omnipotent Death character who, throughout the film, breaks the fourth wall, making dry asides to the audience as he eyes up his next victim. These seemed out of place and weakened the dramatic tension, particularly in the last few scenes. Nélisse was impressive as the titular book thief (she reminded me of Kiernan Shipka), and Watson and especially Rush entertained as Liesel's good cop, bad cop foster parents. The story is compelling and thoughtful, but may irritate those hoping for something with a bit more vim and/or vigour.

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