The 2005 Markus Zusak best-seller ‘The Book Thief’ which put Death in the director's chair has finally been adapted for the screen. The absent-bodied narrator haunts the tale and gives a unique perspective of a being enamoured and fascinated by the lives of humans to the point where it too is haunted by them in return.
The story follows Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), an illiterate young girl on her way to her new foster family in the midst of World War II. Her stern new Mama (Emily Watson) and warm-hearted Papa (Geoffrey Rush) continue to raise her as their own, despite their own poverty in the grips of war-torn Germany. Discovering a book in Liesel’s possession, Papa teaches Liesel to read and thus her passion for literature is born. Under the cover of darkness one night, the family take in a Jewish man Max (Ben Schnetzer), who hides in their basement. Leisel and Max become very close, and after becoming privy to the Mayor’s wife’s magnificent library, Leisel starts to “borrow” books they can read together to help escape reality, discover the world and find joy in the written word.
For a film with such a unique perspective in that it’s narrated by Death, it fails to convincingly portray its active presence in such an environment. The war and its effects are played as almost incidental when, in fact, it should almost be a character in itself.
For a young girl in a precarious family holding on to so many potentially life-threatening secrets, the screen is void of any tension, focusing more on redemption and relationships, which is a betrayal of the story and the time in which it is set.
Sophie Nélisse is the true star of the film. She is simply extraordinary to watch, as the 13-year-old French-Canadian out-acts veterans Rush and Watson, even with an impressive German accent.
Beautifully shot and acted, ‘The Book Thief’ just isn’t the film it should have been.