Title: The Book Thief
HTS Overall Score:84
Film adaptations of popular novels have a nasty habit of ruffling feathers and leaving a bitter taste in the book world’s mouth. While it’s practically impossible for a ninety minute film to convey the density of a good read, a film can certainly do justice to a great story, as is nearly the case with The Book Thief. Originally crafted by Australian novelist Markus Zusak in 2005, The Book Thief spent nearly 230 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List and raked-in a decent collection of book honors. Adapted by Michael Petroni and directed by Brian Percival (A Boy Called Dad, Pleasureland, various television including Downtown Abbey), The Book Thief’s theatrical release is a heart-string tugging affair.
Set in a small town of Nazi Germany, the film is an uncomfortable mishmash of good and lightheartedness sprinkled amongst pure evil. To make the mood exceptionally ominous, the film is narrated by the voice of Death, which fits perfectly with one of the most heinous and wretched times of modern human history.
Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is an illiterate school-aged German girl, orphaned along with her brother by her communist-sympathizing mother. While in transit to their adoptive home, Liesel’s brother dies leaving her all alone to face the challenges of an unknown future. Her new parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson), greet her with mixed introductions. Rosa is a stern and strict authoritarian, carrying an anger and sharpness that petrifies Liesel into a mute state. Hans, on the other hand, is the understanding type and decides to take Liesel under his wing with affection and kindness. The two solidify their bond by rolling their eyes at Rosa’s antics and tackling Liesel’s inability to read.
The family soon takes-in a second visitor named Max (Ben Schnetzer), the Jewish son of a man that saved Hans during World War I. This is risky business for a family living in Nazi Germany and Liesel is sworn to secrecy. She takes the matter seriously, even resisting temptations to tell her closest friend, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who spends his time running imaginary races as Jesse Owens. Liesel, however, carries a second secret that she carefully conceals: she has been stealing books from the home of a high ranking official in the Nazi Party. She takes her reading seriously and enjoys learning new words, but the real-life events happening in her home town teach her invaluable and complex life lessons that she'll take to the grave.
The Book Thief is an interesting story that attempts to extract kindness from the heart of dark times. It’s easy to question planting a story soaked with giddiness and childish play smack in the middle of holocaustic scenes of horror. The film dances dangerously close to a cutesy interpretation of wicked times, however the coming of age of Liesel (her rejection of cultural cleansing, understanding of her family’s need to save Max, and growing hatred of Adolf Hitler), the visible struggles of Max as he clings to life in the Hubermann's basement hiding place, and the despicable images of paranoia and genocide sprinkled throughout the film help to save it from falling over the edge.
Sophie Nélisse’s performance is certainly impressive. Her accent and her ability to stay true to her character are show-stoppers. Geoffrey Rush plays an equally powerful part, giving just the kind of performance one would expect from an Academy Award winning actor (his character's hopeful and positive personality is charming). The film is held back by a few minor hiccups: its flow is a tad sluggish and it struggles to adequately represent the passage of large blocks of time. Then there’s Rosa, the stern mother that was born to be plain and cross. There are a few odd moments where her personality flip-flops into a playful friendliness; this flip-flop cracks the realism of her character, weakening the impact of her otherwise tough exterior.
PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news/tbt3.jpg[/img]20th Century Fox delivers The Book Thief with an excellent MPEG-4 AVC high-def transfer, resulting in a stunning 2.40:1 cinemascope presentation. The film features a color palate that shifts from cool and crisp (outdoor scenes) to an earthy warmth (indoor scenes), offering an extremely balanced image. Reds present in outdoor scenes are absolutely delightful, popping with boldness to a striking degree, while golds are thick and stately during indoor shots. Black levels are excellent in both settings, as are flesh tones. Visible details throughout the film are sharp and exacting, even when cloaked by shadows in the Hubermann’s basement and the darkness of the town's bomb shelter. Costume textures and stitching are on full display, as are the characters’ rich facial features and the intricacies of environmental surroundings. The image maintains its composure, even during the darkest of scenes, with only slight variations in blacks during nighttime and poorly lit shots. Blocking, banding, and other artifacts aren't an issue, leaving the film with an incredibly clean look.
[img]http://www.hometheatershack.com/news//tbt4.jpg[/img]The Book Thief offers a solid DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track that nearly matches its boast-worthy video quality. Because the film offers a mix of drama and action, there are several opportunities for the rear and bass channels to flex some dynamic muscle. Dialog is very good, offering total intelligibility despite several tricky accents. Voices (other than the narrator), however, lean toward the thin side, lacking a truly enjoyable throaty presence. Soundstage directionality from side-to-side and front-to-back is also excellent, perfectly matching doors opening and closing, the passing of a train, and street traffic. Surround activity is also good, with loads of environmental details like creaking floors and wind blown sheets appearing in the rears. John Williams’ original score also invades the rears, encircling the listening area with a blanket of power and emotion (especially true of the score’s haunting piano theme that appears throughout the film). While LFE activity is sparse, the film’s air raid bombing scenes unleash the sub channel and pound away to teeth rattling lows.
• Deleted Scenes
• A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life
• Theatrical Trailer
The Book Thief is a fairly solid effort that strives for perfection but falls a tad short. The film dances around some exceptionally emotional subject matter, narrowly avoiding an uncomfortable intrusion of lightheartedness into one of the darkest moments of humanity. Its saving grace is the presence of love and rejection of evil by citizens of a country executing a hateful war effort. Despite several extraordinarily strong acting efforts, it’s plot and pacing can be a tad slow and aimless at times. Fans of dramas and films that are slower moving will likely be able to ignore these complaints, while those looking for faster paced action will be left squirming in their seats. The film’s audio and video qualities are above average and a total delight; its extras are interesting but too thin to be considered noteworthy. It’s easy to recommend The Book Thief as a film to watch, but this reviewer would suggest renting the disc before buying it.
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
Directed by: Brian Percival
Written by: Markus Zusak (novel), Michael Petroni (adaptation)
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French: Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1, Portuguese: Dolby Digital 5.1, Russian: DTS 5.1, Czech: Dolby Digital 5.1, Hungarian: Dolby Digital 5.1, Polish: Dolby Digital 5.1, Turkish: Dolby Digital 5.1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 131 minutes
Blu-Ray Release Date: March 11, 2014
Buy The Book Thief on Blu-ray at Amazon
Recommendation: Watch It! (rental first)