It’s difficult enough to make a film about the Holocaust without having to aim it at kids. Following the likes of The Diary Of Anne Frank and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, director Brian Percival turns Markus Zusak’s bestseller into a moving family drama that ends up feeling far too slight to shoulder its weighty themes.
The Grim Reaper was busy in 1939, especially in Germany. But he’s even busier in The Book Thief – narrating the sad tale of 11-year-old Liesel Meminger as she comes of age during the darkest chapter of the 20th Century.
Arriving in the fictional Alpine town of Molching after burying her brother and being abandoned by her father, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) reluctantly meets her new foster parents: Hans (Geoffrey Rush), the loveable town musician, and Rosa (Emily Watson), the matronly town battle-axe.
A bundle of nerves at first, it isn’t long before she’s rescuing banned books from SS bonfires, flirting with the little Aryan boy next door and hiding Jewish refugees in the basement. For once, the kids are all perfectly cast. It helps that Percival uses bilingual teens who don’t need to put on dodgy accents; 13-year-old Nélisse more than matching sensitive star turns from Rush and Watson.
Fairytale production design and a sweeping score from John Williams help the film look and sound the part – the only problem being that it looks and sounds like a TV movie. More Goodnight Mister Tom than Schindler’s List, the phoney emotions make the tragic U-turns almost as maudlin as the uplifts; making this the cosiest, safest, least threatening film about the Holocaust yet.
At its best when dealing with the minutiae of life in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief falls flat whenever it needs to deal with the bigger picture – not helped by clumsy interruptions from ‘Death’ (voiced by Roger Allam like a pompous school teacher). By the time the final gut-punch comes along, you only feel like crying because you know you probably should.
It’s hard not to be moved by the story, but it’s only a handful of great performances that save it from underwhelming. Steal the book instead.