Tuesday, December 3, 2013
WORDS OF WONDER
You need not have read Markus Zusak's bestselling YA novel to be drawn to The Book Thief. Bibliophiles will find the premise of a child who steals books because she is so addicted to reading just about irresistible.
As usual with literary adaptations, there's a lot more going on in Zusak's 500-plus-page novel than ever makes it to the screen. But the essence of Zusak's story about a girl whose love of books helps her to survive devastating times—the rise of the Nazis in a World War II-era German town—retains its power.
Scripted by Michael Petroni (who's had a hand in adapting authors as diverse as Anne Rice and C.S. Lewis for the screen), The Book Thief is directed by Downton Abbey veteran Brian Percival. It's a stately looking film that wisely concentrates on personal dynamics, while the escalating horrors of the war are kept mostly offstage.
And it succeeds on an ensemble of absolutely lovely performances led by Geoffrey Rush as the girl's warm-hearted foster father, Emily Watson as his crusty-seeming wife, and beguiling 13-year-old French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse in the title role.
Taught to read and write by her new foster father, young Liesel (Nérisse) awakens to the transportive wonder of words just as the Nazis come to power with their campaign of moral and intellectual "cleansing." When books are burned in the square, she can't resist smuggling a smoking volume home—or sneaking into the Buergmeister's house to "borrow" books from the family library.
But Liesel's petty crimes pale next to the war encroaching steadily into the town: neighbors are conscripted into the army, Jews are dragged out of their homes for an unknown fate, and terrifying air raids disrupt everything. Tensions mount when Liesel's foster parents shelter Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement—a young man who also loves words and encourages Liesel to tell her own story.
That the worst of war's brutality is kept offscreen fits with the viewpoint of children who can't really comprehend what's happening in the larger world. But the emotional connection between the characters—especially the moving relationship between Rush's humble Hans, struggling to retain his humanity, and his devoted Liesel—gives the film its validity and grace. (Read more in this week's Good Times)