Following the global success of Julian Fellowes’ hit British television series, Downton Abbey director Brian Percival now casts his eye over Nazi Germany with an adaptation of Markus Zusak’s critically-lauded novel The Book Thief (2013). The film opens to a plummy Roger Allam voiceover as Death, informing us that the Grim Reaper has found himself rushed of his bony feet of late with the rise of the Third Reich. We’re then introduced to flaxen-haired orphan Liesel Meminger (cherubic newcomer Sophie Nélisse), who has been adopted by kindly accordion player Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his stern, washerwoman wife, Rosa (Emily Watson).
Situated in her new home, the angelic Liesel spends most of her time either hiding from Rosa – who scolds and scorns her at ever turn – or hanging on the words of her cuddly adopted papa, learning to read and write as the Nazi jackboot stomps ever closer. Her passion for literature increases to the extent that she starts rescuing books from the flames of the infamous public burnings. The plot thickens when the Hubermanns take in a young Jewish man, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), whom they hide in their cellar. To suggest that The Book Thief is an overly polished Hollywood portrayal of hardship would be a gross understatement. Percival’s period piece is all too pristine at points, meaning that when we’re confronted with the often highly sanitised horrors of Hitler’s rule, it jars.
This is partly due to Michael Petroni’s dawdling script, that consistently fails to capture the emotional pangs of shifting between childhood and adolescence within a wider, darker social context that was so adeptly captured in Zusak’s original source text. The concept of showing the worsening situation in Nazi Germany through a child’s eyes has historically proven fruitful but is poorly handled here by the adapting Petroni. Tackling home truths dealt with far more intelligently in 2008’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Book Thief lacks much-needed dramatic tension and instead feels perfectly happy to skip along trapped in its own mindless sense of fantastical whimsy.
Percival is also found guilty of constantly attempting to illicit tears from his captive audience, but his film never quite manages to convince you to give in to the drama. Perhaps this is because it’s too wrapped up in its own aesthetic and plays things safe in terms of portraying the true horrors of what was happening in Germany at the time. It might seem excessively cruel to say such things about a film that has so much heart, but Percival’s The Book Thief is more than a little patronising towards its clearly intended teen audience, inordinately concerned as it is with shielding them from the realities of conflict, oppression and human suffering.