The Book Thief - Cinema Review

'There is nothing here even as evocative as the most famous version of the novel's front cover.'

As one of the many fans of Markus Zusak's novel The Book Thief, it was difficult to approach Brian Percival's adaptation with anything other than trepidation. The trailers, which seem to have started rolling out years ago, did nothing to mitigate that feeling. The film looked oddly charmless, the vibrant palette weirdly chosen in a cold and desolate setting.

Sadly, there's little within Percival's film to change that prejudgement. The Book Thief is televisual (Percival has recently been directing episodes of Downton Abbey), lacking in character and tempo and almost wholly uninspired. Percival's direction takes Zusack's narrative from a glum German town of greys and snow and illness to a discernibly bizarre world of vivid blue-greys, a world which lives in the mid-shot and rarely attempts to find scope. Death, so important in Zusak's novel, is reduced from a character to an omnipresent, never-present narrator, a spectacularly poorly chosen Roger Allam, another television-ready presence/voice reaching above station. Watch for a scene by the river towards the end. It looks again as though the director is going to rely on his favoured shooting distance before awkwardly, unspectacularly, breaking out furtively wider. There is nothing here even as evocative as the most famous version of the novel's front cover.

If the subtle things don't show that Percival is not in control of this film then the grander ones should do. Protagonist Liesel's (Sophie NĂ©lisse) arrival at her new school is predictably one concerned with the cruelnesses of children, unsubtly brought to life by the director's insistence at placing her in the middle of a ring of little ones all shouting 'dummkopf' towards her. That word signals the film's grandest failure. Uncertain whether to stage this in the location's native German language, or the novel's English (Zusak is Australian) the director opts for a mixture, hopping into German whenever he feels like. There are parallels with the book in that regard but it makes for an uncertain existence for the narrative on film and screenwriter Michael Petroni should have dealt with the problem at source.

The things that work here should hint that the material deserved more to those unfamiliar with it. NĂ©lisse is not a revelation because the material does not allow her to be but she certainly is clearly talented and remarkably assured at times. She has the easy-going charm-under-fire the film as a whole lacks and her casting is perfect. As per the novel, Percival is also at least clear that this is a narrative at least as concerned with the small resistances of a town at war with itself and a foreign enemy as it is about a girl who reads books. There is thievery happening here: the thievery of freedom, of life itself. The message of the narrative survives the medium.

Sadly, it's not enough to call The Book Thief a successful adaptation. The key arrival of Max (Ben Schnetzer) into the narrative is another big point Percival fluffs, introducing him during the section where Liesel and Hans (Geoffrey Rush) are still bonding. Suddenly, emotionally, we are back to square one and starting essentially the same story over again. Charm, again, suffers. Similarly to the language problem, it also feels as though Petroni has kept too much. My partner has read the novel more recently than I, and could remember a handful of omissions, but I noticed little not featured by Zusack, crammed into an inflated runtime which, again, sees the lightness and important character of Zusack's work disappear. Charm, stolen, is indeed a crime.

The Book Thief is released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 26th February.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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