Friday, 7 March 2014

Review: The Book Thief

World of Blackout Film Review

The Book Thief Poster

The Book Thief
Cert: 12A / 131 mins / Dir. Brian Percival
WoB Rating: 6/7

There are two stories being told in Brian Percival's adaptation of The Book Thief. One is about an emotionally shattered young girl learning to read and then to write, and finding freedom and power in words, at a time when books are either being destroyed or used as propaganda. The other is about how the inhabitants of a small rural town - and indeed an entire country - are manipulated, tricked and bullied into a regime that sees them disown the things they should be valuing and could well get them killed, into the bargain. Both are powerful stories, both are beautifully told; but the one about the war often drowns out the one about the girl, and that's a shame because it's the one that the film's named after.

Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson, Geoffrey Rush and Ben Schnetzer are all outstanding as the newly formed family unit, trying to do the right thing as the world falls apart around them. It's Schnetzer's role as Jewish fugitive Max which drives both sides of the film, and he and Nélisse have a magnificent chemistry together. I foresee great things for each of them. It's also fascinating to see a side of the second world-war which we don't get a lot of exposure to in the UK*1; naturally I didn't imagine every single German soldier to be a heartless killing machine, but it's rare to see the build-up and onset of war affecting the general population of Germany in much the same was as it did other countries (in short, no-one wants to get shot at by people they don't know, for people they don't know). By the time you add on the organised propaganda and removal of 'non-desirables', it's positively heart-breaking.

On the 'well, I have to find something to moan about' front, I'd have been quite happy if the cast hadn't performed all their lines with the German accents. They pull them off well enough, and I quite liked how they used German words here and there, but it took me a while to get used to, and I wouldn't have forgotten they were German*2, y'know? I quite liked the approach they used in Valkyrie, but obviously I understand that the cast were wearing German uniforms for the entire film, so it was easier to uphold the illusion.

I also wasn't overly enamoured of the Death character. As in 'Grim Reaper', Death. There's no suggestion of that aspect of the film in the trailer, so it comes a little out of the blue, and for me he just wasn't used enough. From his opening lines it's clear who and what he is, but the narration is so sporadic that it seems like an interruption every time he re-appears. Even the climactic scene of the film, which is the narrative's reason for having him there, would be no less powerful without his voice-over. Although the real problem I have is that Roger Allam's performance as Death just sounds so fucking patronising that it's completely out of place with the rest of the thoughtful, often delicate, film. I think a more emotionally-flat voice would work better, but that's just my 2p's worth. Was his opening monologue supposed to channel The Book from The Hitchikers Guide To The Galaxy? Because that sort of drew me out a little, even if it did make me smile. Oh, and as much as I love John Williams, his work here is a little too whimsical for the mood of the film. *shrugs*

Proof that lessons from history*3 can be thought-provoking without resorting to condescension, The Book Thief is a film with a lot to say. And when it can be heard over the sound of bombs dropping, it says them beautifully.

Is the trailer representative of the film?
Pretty much, but the film's far more engaging.

Did I laugh, cry, gasp and sigh when I was supposed to?
I did.

Does it achieve what it sets out to do?
For me, yes; your mileage may vary.

Pay at the cinema, Rent on DVD or just wait for it to be on the telly?
The intimate settings will work better on a bigger screen, I think, but you won't lose too much by waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray.

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I will, a bit.

Will I watch it again?
I will.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream?
There isn't. And I don't care how inappropriate it would seem, there was plenty of scope for one here.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

And my question for YOU is…
Who can we cast as Death to re-record the lines for the home-release?

*1 It's not a taboo subject in this day and age, but as Britain was so instrumental in the war, it's only natural that most of the history here comes from "our" side, certainly in terms of personal accounts.
*2 Although with that many swastikas in the film, I wouldn't have been able to. There are a lot of swastikas in this film. All used well within the bounds of context, but a lot.
*3 Yes, I know that the story's fictional, but the themes it raises aren't.

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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