News Column

For a war flick, "Thief" is a pretty puddle

December 3, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 03--Beautifully photographed with impressive costuming and sets, "The Book Thief" makes Nazi Germany, World War II and the Holocaust much too pretty.

Too pretty for its own good. Too pretty for history's sake. And way too safe for the sake of what should be inherent drama.

Trying to soften the Holocaust to adjust to a young-adult audience is not the smartest thing to try.

There is little question that the movie's adaptors, in an effort to translate Markus Zusak's 2006 best-seller, had the best of intentions. The film looks beautiful, complete with sets that recreate an entire village.

Young-adult literature, though, has passed on, for better or worse, into more edgy and violent realms ("The Hunger Games" and others). As a result, this softened version seems more schmaltzy than grimy in spite of the horror in which it is set.

No less a personage than Death himself is the narrator -- a factor that suggests something more profound and threatening than the pat pronouncements we get.

One can only imagine what Woody Allen would have done with a movie about the Holocaust narrated by Death.

Here, a 13-year-old girl named Liesel is abandoned by her mother and farmed out to a poverty-ridden couple played by the highly talented Emily Watson and the Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush ("Shine").

Watson plays Rosa, a tough disciplinarian, but we know she's soft-hearted underneath. (In another era, Agnes Moorehead would have played the part).

Rush plays the good-hearted father-friend of the child -- playful and folksy.

He's just one of the many cliches.

Among the movie's biggest problems is the beautiful Canadian child Sophie Nelisse as the would-be troubled girl. They might as well have cast Shirley Temple or the fictional Curly McDimple in the part. Nelisse is so beautiful that she reminds us of Elizabeth Taylor in "National Velvet."

It seems appropriate that her character is named Liesel, the same as the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" girl in "The Sound of Music," another example of sweet WWII sentiment.

Liesel, when we first meet her in 1939, cannot read or write. She is an amazingly quick learner -- unbelievably so.

The books she snatches are a handbook on funerals and H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man," which she quotes endlessly. (Even the Nazi book-burning here resembles a marshmallow roast around the campfire).

We first note Nelisse's miscasting when she is required to be a tomboy and beat up a bully, as well as kick a soccer ball with the neighborhood guys. She's more the Dresden doll type.

Along the way, she and the family hide a young Jewish man in their basement.

The event is approached as casually as if they were hosting a weekend guest.

He hides there for two years and even goes out at night to check the stars, with the neighbors never noticing.

All the cliches are there.

Liesel's best friend is an ultra-Aryan blond boy (whom we are almost sure will turn evil and betray her, but... it's the one thing in the film that is not predictable). The Nazis are ominous, but mostly ineffective, galoots who show up to search the basement.

Directed by Brian Percival, whose stately style was more appropriate to his several contributions to TV's "Downton Abbey," helms a script that fails to capture the sharp storytelling of the novel in favor of lengthy scenes of maudlin melodrama, and a plot that moves so slowly that there is plenty of time to wonder why it doesn't move along.

Mal Vincent, 757-446-2347, mal.vincent@pilotonline.com

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Movie Details

"THE BOOK THIEF"

Cast Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch

Director Brian Percival

Screenplay Michael Petroni, from the book by Markus Zusak

Music John Williams

MPAA rating PG-13 (violence)

Mal's rating

Find a local showing of "The Book Theif."

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(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

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