‘The Book Thief’ Review

Published 1 year ago by , Updated October 17th, 2014 at 9:30 pm,

The Book Thief Movie Geoffrey Rush Sophie Nelisse 570x294 The Book Thief Review

Moviegoers who appreciate films for quality acting, immersive period settings, as well as a healthy dose of humor within a heartbreaking drama, will likely find The Book Thief delivers.

The Book Thief, based on the novel by Markus Zusak, follows the story of adolescent “Book Thief” Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) during the time of Nazi Germany. After tragedy strikes her family, Liesel is adopted by kind-hearted working-class painter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his strict but loving wife Rose (Emily Watson). Despite forging a fast friendship with neighbor boy Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), Liesel is teased by her classmates on the first day of school for being illiterate. As a result, Hans commits to teaching his adopted daughter to read and write – at a time when the Nazis have begun outlawing most literary works.

Liesel settles into her life with the Hubermanns, attending school and relishing whatever books she can get her hands on, until a mysterious Jewish man, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), with ties to Hans’ past, appears at the house one night. On the verge of death and hunted by the Nazis, the Hubbermans offer Max refuge. Over the coming months Liesel and the young man bond over the power of words; however, as World War II begins and Adolf Hitler’s forces stoke anti-Axis allies, life for the Hubbermans, their guest, and the titular Book Thief, becomes increasingly perilous.

The Book Thief Movie Liesel Sophie Nelisse The Book Thief Review

Sophie Nelisse as Liesel Meminger in ‘The Book Thief’

The second feature film (not counting several TV movies) from director Brian Percival, The Book Thief is an impactful historical drama with captivating performances from its main cast – especially adolescent leading lady Sophie Nélisse. Still, while Percival captures intriguing juxtapositions from Nazi Germany (ex. a children’s choir singing about the inferiority of non-Germans), the feature film glosses over many of the book’s intricacies as well as the horror of the larger Nazi-led genocide. At times, The Book Thief adaptation is a mixed bag, successfully capturing the complexities of the time with personal stories of Germans who were not complicit in Hitler’s agenda, whereas other scenes are painted in extremely broad strokes that reduce multi-faceted social issues into one-note caricature.

Given the best selling novel source material, moviegoers shouldn’t be surprised that the core Book Thief story is riveting – full of interesting characters and encounters that provide plenty of room for high caliber actors to shine. Unfortunately, the 131 minute runtime causes a bizarre jumble of content – including some of the book’s richest ideas but failing to explore many beyond surface level plot points. Given the reach (and depth) of the source material, Percival was clearly pressed to include as much as he could – but the film falls short in several of its most important efforts.

The Book Thief Movie Sophie Nelisse Emily Watson Geoffrey Rush The Book Thief Review

Sophie Nelisse, Emily Watson, and Geoffrey Rush in ‘The Book Thief’

Plot beats are rushed through the pipeline so quickly that there’s barely time to miss, or feel the absence of, characters that are stolen off to war – or the relief that comes with finding out a periled character is actually safe. The relationship between Liesel and Max, especially, is reduced down to a few sweet moments, but in spite of the pair’s chemistry onscreen, the friendship is extremely rushed and unearned – making it hard to understand the bond that the movie tells (but does not show) the audience exists between the two.

Nevertheless, The Book Thief cast is not to blame for any shortages in the onscreen drama. Nélisse is impeccable as Liesel – presenting subtle nuance and exemplifying the mix of fear and uncertainty that haunted even German citizens during Hitler’s reign. Despite a somewhat thin look at the greater implications of WWII, Percival excels at offering a diverse range of human moments that attempt to show a more intimate side of everyday people living under the ever-suspicious eye of the Nazi-regime. Many of these dramatic scenes excel because of Nélisse’s talent – as she consistently bumps into abrasive Nazi ideologies but is not in a position to publicly showcase her discontent. Instead, Nélisse presents Liesel’s beliefs through delicate scenes of honor and courage – which, regardless of the subdued approach, make for impressive and emotional drama.

The Book Thief Movie Sophie Nelisse Nico Liersch The Book Thief Review

Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) and Rudy (Nico Liersch) in ‘The Book Thief’

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Nélisse is surrounded by an accomplished stable of actors – especially Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as Liesel’s foster parents. Rush brings his usual command of humor and dramatic authority, making Hans one of the most likable and sympathetic characters in the film, even though he isn’t altered much by his various experiences. Conversely, Watson’s Rose steals several key encounters – as viewers will be endeared to the buttoned-up mother figure as unfolding events chip away at her no-nonsense demeanor. In fact, the scenes where Rose manages to forget the troubles of the neighborhood, her family, and the ever-persistent state of danger, to let go and join with Hans and Liesel in a fleeting moment of levity are some of the film’s most enchanting (and cathartic) sequences.

Supporting players, especially Nico Liersch, as Liesel’s best friend Rudy, are also solid in their roles – with Liersch owning several of The Book Thief‘s most insightful and comedic exchanges. Ben Schnetzer, portraying Jewish refugee Max, is also a strong, albeit underutilized, addition – who enjoys a much more prominent role in the book – and is mostly relegated to near-death duty (as well as a few witty exchanges with Liesel) in the movie adaptation.

The Book Thief Movie Ben Schnetzer Sophie Nelisse The Book Thief Review

Max (Ben Schnetzer) and Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) ‘The Book Thief’

While the restricted scope of the film helps to tell the main Book Thief storyline, the movie falls short of developing many of the presented events beyond interconnected, but mostly surface-level, displays of exposition and tension. Moviegoers who appreciate films for quality acting, immersive period settings, as well as a healthy dose of humor within a heartbreaking drama, will likely find The Book Thief delivers on all the necessary technical notes – exhibiting a rich series of historical fiction events. Yet, fans of the book itself (or those looking for a deeper exploration of WWII Germany) may find that outside the scene-to-scene drama very few relationships or thematic ideas are fully realized, since Percival relies on simply showing Nazi Germany and its citizens – instead of intimately exploring the setting and people through unique or particularly memorable insight.

If you’re still on the fence about The Book Thief, check out the trailer below:

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The Book Thief runs 131 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material. Now playing in theaters.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

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  1. It was made up of great elements (particularly the performances) but the whole certainly underwhelming. If only they had axed the Death narrative and reigned in some of the melodrama.

    “But for every two steps forward the film takes in terms of thoughtful impact, it takes one back. Without fail, every time the story peaks, it reveals just how hard it’s trying to invoke an emotional reaction. Miscalculating more for more, the film has an unfortunate tendency to overstay its welcome and beat the dead horse black and blue. The most egregious instance of this comes in the final moment where the film pulls a Return of the King triple ending. Had it ended a scene or two earlier, sans voiceover, it would have been an extremely powerful and poignant statement. As it is, it’s overdrawn and self-defeating. Instead of going out with understated subtlety, it reminds you over and over again of its intention, as persistent as a politician.”

  2. So Basically The Director Screwed Up Because He Has Nothing Meaningful To Say About The Story or The Characters in it. The Events in The Film Just “Happen” without any critical thought as to why they Occurred.

  3. Oscar best film nominee for certain. Important story told beautifully.

  4. How jaded we have become not to be able to appreciate this parable about being human, set so prosaically in the political prisons of life in a totalitarian regime. Coming of age movie? Beginners mind movie. The horrors of war? The end of all war. The beauty of the human spirit? The depravity of the human spirit. The juxtapositions of all we are set within the purity of innocence and discovery, behind those marvelous eyes of Liessel and wonderful hands of Hans playing the accordian. Its perfection.
    The subtleties and irony of the themes of motherhood, of fatherland, of secrets, of truth, of stolen moments of bliss and horror all shaken into one beautifully photographed movie. We really all are Max aren’t we? Prisoners who cannot feel our natural world anymore. Dying within our little space under the stairs.
    This movie isn’t about re-telling the Nazi horror story. Its really a parable about you and me, the choices we must make, the roll of the dice and most importantly how we grow somehow thru it all. Its about being human, something we need to see a lot more of in our movies. We tend to forget through most of the Hollywood techno-trash being produced today what it is to be alive. Those who love this film are those who can accept their liivse for what it is. Those who don’t get it need to take a walk in the woods and hug their family.

  5. The narrator takes away from the film with its brooding, smug tone, the scenes above the clouds, and the film seems to run too long, though there are many poignant moments, understated and moving, such as the transformation in Ross’s character, or liesel’s bewilderment at the world.

  6. I can’t think of too many movies that are better than their book origins. I find it harsh and petty to rate a movie this way.

  7. We are all bored by excessive violence in films, unplausible at best and wanting to extract a maximum emotional projection from us, the audience.
    I found this film refreshing in the sense that for once innocence is preserved, no gory blood spills, no bursts of violence, and a simple truth, —–you must remain human at all costs.
    A wonderful pairing with delicate strokes of the horror of war in a small village.
    Thank you ! I was an agreeable moment.

  8. I am 68 years old and have been going to the movies since I was five. This movie is my all time favorite. I’ve seen it three times (taking various friends) and just ordered the DVD.

  9. I haven’t actually seen this movie, but I read the book and finished it only a week ago. I found it to be one of the most beautiful pieces of literature I’ve ever read, because of it’s profound message of the horrors humans can do to each other. I actually cried whilst reading the part where Himmel Street is bombed. It left a very profound impact on me and I think that it portrays the concept of ‘death’ and what happens when you die, and how life can end just as quickly as it began and without any warning. I am very looking forward to seeing the movie and I hope that it doesn’t disappoint me.

  10. outstanding,should have won an oscar.Emotional on so many levels.mastery of the word,direction.color ,progression,solid acting with no sodmy/gay suggestions.wonderful thought provocating.loved it .thank you