The loss of innocents

DAVE MANNING
Last updated 14:23 16/01/2014
Super Fun Night
FRESH-FACED THIEF: Doe-eyed Sophie Nelisse is perfectly cast in The Book Thief.
Super Fun Night
TROUBLED TEENS: Short Term 12 is an affecting, poignant story about a safe haven for abandoned young people.

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REVIEW: The Book Thief Starring Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson. Directed by Brian Percival. PG. ★★★

A family drama set during World War II is a reminder that the victims of war can also include innocent people living in a country responsible for horrific crimes against humanity.

In The Book Thief, an adaptation of Australian author Markus Zusak's 2005 best-selling novel, the country is Germany during the Nazi era from 1938-1945.

The focus is on Liesel, a young girl abandoned by her mother (apparently a communist fleeing Nazis but never made clear) to foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann in a small town.

The fictional story depicts her relationship with them as well as with Rudy, a boy who befriends her, and Max, a Jew taken in and hidden by Hans and Rosa, but also Liesel's love for books which empower her imagination.

In itself, this handsomely made film is at times endearing and tender in a leisurely narrative rhythm, albeit with only occasional moments of drama or suspense.

Its core cast is commendable: Geoffrey Rush as the kind, loving, accordion-playing Hans, Emily Watson as Rosa, described as "like a thunderstorm, always rumbling", but who is loving beneath her stern exterior, and Sophie Nelisse as doe-eyed, quietly spirited Liesel.

Effective in support are Nico Liersch as tow-headed Rudy, who picks the wrong time to be a fan of Berlin Olympic gold medal-winner Jesse Owens, Ben Schnetzer as an often ailing Max who's sustained by Liesel's book readings, and Barbara Auer as the local burgermeister's grieving wife who makes her dead son's library available to Liesel, who later "borrows" books from it.

The episodic story has some narrative problems, such as Liesel not appearing to age or physically grow up over seven years, and a character diving into a freezing river as if it were a summer swim and showing no signs of hypothermia.

Perhaps this is all part of the story's fairytale element of portraying innocence in the midst of evil but it can have a rose-coloured, sentimental aspect as if the story is aimed at children and minimises or sanitises the horror (bodies retrieved from bombed houses show no physical damage).

More successful is the film's effort to depict how some Germans, represented here by an ordinary, working-class family, become haplessly overwhelmed by what their government is doing - with children brainwashed in school with propaganda songs and forced to join the Hitler Youth, book-burning, increasing persecution of Jews and bellicose rallies.

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The Hubermanns are good people who dislike Hitler, endure hardship for refusing to join the Nazi Party and live in fear, feeling helpless and hopeless, but, in war's aftermath, would be still considered accountable for their country's actions, and share in its disgrace and guilt.

In the end the only winner is the film's narrator: Death, here "haunted by humanity" and lubriciously voiced by Brit Roger Allam. And yet something as momentous as the Holocaust merits no mention.

Short Term 12 Starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. M. ★★★★

A movie offering another kind of reminder is the contemporary drama Short Term 12 - an affecting, poignant story about youths who have been neglected or abandoned, sometimes abused, and feel unwanted and unloved.

Specifically, this fictional drama centres on Grace (Brie Larson), a staff supervisor at Short Term 12, a temporary Los Angeles foster-care home for at-risk teens who have cause to feel angry, hurt, defensive and alone, and her co-worker and boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr).

As Grace tells a new staff member, their job is not to be parents or therapists but to create a safe environment for the residents. Grace's own troubled past has given her an empathy for the teens but unexpected news and a new arrival at the home combine to create crises in both her private and professional lives.

Grace relates to a possibly abused teenage girl and fears for her future while Marcus worries about a teenage boy about to turn 18 and leave the home, with each teen writing - rap lyrics by one, a fairytale by the other - to express how they feel inside.

Short Term 12 is director Destin Cretton's feature-length expansion of a short film he made in 2008 on the same subject. With fine naturalistic performances, the film is engaging and moving, achieving an intimate and honest realism which offers an insight into such care and espouses sharing one's feelings and problems in life rather than trying to make do alone.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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