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Review: The Book Thief


Sarah Merritt reviews Brian Percival’s adaptation of The Book Thief.

Brian Percival’s adaption of the award-winning novel by Markus Zusak leaves us longing for snow, ‘40s fashion, and the vanilla scent of an old book. But is it supposed to?

Image credit: The Guardian
Image credit: The Guardian

This is undoubtedly a good film, and an author could not ask for a more detailed recreation of his world. Himmel Street, home of LieselMeminger (Sophie Nelisse), her adoptive parents the Hubermanns, and the adorable Rudy (Nico Liersch), bursts with the authenticity of wartime Germany that springs from Zusak’s pages.

The decision for the actors to speak with German accents feels awkward at first, but soon becomes immersive, with snippets of German language adding to the feel. Geoffrey Rush’s buttery eyes make him perfect as the kindly Hans Hubermann, adoptive father to Liesel, who is both exasperated by and patient with his steely, no-nonsense wife, the fantastic Emily Watson as Rosa Hubermann.

Disappointingly, the narration of Death, whose unremarkable voice talents were lent by Roger Allam, lacks much of the wit and wonder ascribed to him by Zusak. But, undoubtedly, theangelic, mesmerising Sophie Nelisse is perfect as strong-willed Liesel. She also wears some very nice cardigans.

There is some attempt to be hard-hitting. Like the book, the film presents the climate of the Second World War matter-of-factly, forming an inherently optimistic ending despite the simple truths of the war.

"Buttery eyed" - Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann. Image credit: The Telegraph
“Buttery eyed” – Geoffrey Rush as Hans Hubermann.
Image credit: The Telegraph

As the climax reminds us, people died and were persecuted for no reason. Scenes such as Liesel and her classmates singing an anti-Semitic anthem, later watching a book burning with avid delight, comments on how blindly a society can accept something that seems so obviously wrong.

As Liesel learns to read and write, herself mastering the persuasive power of words, Nelisse portrays a realistic resentment that grows faster than her hair extensions.

However visually impressive and heart-warming the film may be, it lacks the punch of Zusak’s novel. The climax has little of the book’s devastating quality, though Nelisse does look every part the shocked, ash-smeared Liesel, and the resolution seems rushed and somewhat shallow. Percival does his best, but I doubt any filmmaker could reproduce the grief felt by reading those last few pages.

The film almost aims to recreate a nostalgia for the ‘40s, something that was clearly not Zusak’s intention. It falls flat in places, missing a number of opportunities to really shake its audience.

Over all, this is a pleasing and believable adaption, with a cathartic quality that makes for an enjoyable watch. But, unlike its novel counterpart, it doesn’t say anything new.

Sarah Merritt

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