Too many holes in The Book Thief


Directed by Brian Percival.

Adapting a well beloved and much respected novel is a fraught business.

And they don't come much more beloved and well respected than Markus Zusak's The Book Thief.

The novel has picked up dozens of international awards, and spent four years on the New York Times best seller list.

I've lost count of the number of well-meaning friends and colleagues who have told me that I must read it, and that I'll love it when I do.

And perhaps now I shall, for I've always found the old dictum about good books making for disappointing films to be broadly true, and The Book Thief has yielded a terribly disappointing film.

The film follows young Liesel Meminger from 1938 until the end of World War 2. Liesel is a German child, adopted into a poor family in a small provincial town near Munich.

The family take in a young Jewish refugee, and he will hide in the house for much of the war.

Next door to Liesel lives Rudy, a boy of about her own age. Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse is astonishingly good as Liesel, she is luminous on screen, and quite capable of projecting the complex suite of emotions that Liesel must travel through during the course of the film.

Next to her, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are both fabulously well cast as Liesel's adoptive parents, despite Watson's part being criminally underwritten, and largely reduced to that of a stereotypical shrewish hausfrau with an acid tongue and an ill-concealed heart of gold.

Rush has better luck with his role, and is at least allowed to be kind and witty, but Rush's years of enjoying his great fortune have left him with a nose that looks like the last raspberry in the punnet, and not even the genius of Hollywood's best make-up artists can entirely conceal it.

But, Rush's schnoz aside, the film is near faultless technically, and it is exceptionally well acted. The design, costumes, sets, and the cinematography are all peerless. But in the story-telling, the film goes badly astray.

The Book Thief has clearly been assembled with an eye on the clock. Scenes are missing, whole sub-plots are set up, and then come to naught, characters are mentioned at the end of the film who we have never been introduced to.

All of this points to a film that has been cut down from a far fuller whole. A very smart editor once told me that she thinks of the scenes in a film as gears, and that editing is the process of getting all those gears spinning and meshing smoothly with each other.

The Book Thief is a film that has had too many of its cogs left out. Where it needs to build smoothly and inexorably to a devastating final stanza, it clunks along, and then arrives in a rush.

There are scenes in The Book Thief that will stay with you long after the credits, but as a whole, it is polished, sporadically impressive, and somehow quite unfinished.