'Book Thief' redeemed by acting, cinematography

By TOM JOZWIK - Special to TImeOut

November 27, 2013


WAUKESHA - Preachers, one of their number claimed, should be able to reduce their messages to a single sentence.

Movies are not sermons; arguably, though, the best of them can also be summarized quickly. When they can’t, when that characteristic of sharp focus is absent, the films are in trouble.

“In trouble” is not necessarily synonymous with “in a state of disaster.” So it is with “The Book Thief,” a novel-based film that, troubled though it is by a lack of focus, is far from the realm of disastrous cinema. “The Book Thief” is a decent movie, striking in its cinematography, remarkable for some of  its acting. At the same time, “The Book Thief” is bothersome because of its failure to stick for an appreciable amount of time to any one topic - not unlike an annoyingly curious neighbor kid.

Early on, the movie seems to be about adoption in 1930s Germany. It soon morphs into a depiction of the father-daughter bond (potentially as fine a depiction as the standard-setting, 68-year-old “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a personal favorite).

“The Book Thief” seems about to become a story of young love, but that eventuality gives way to an evils-of-Nazism theme featuring Kristallnacht and a town square book burning. Soon enough, one is viewing a manifestation of the courage of one fine (if slightly eccentric) fellow and the other members of his family, who boldly hide a Jewish friend in their basement. Along the way, there’s also the titular tale of an individual who pilfers books. Now just try to condense the first 120 words of this paragraph into one sentence.

“The Book Thief” progresses from credible to melodramatic to maudlin. It appears to be ending as a pull-out-all-the-stops cinematic tragedy when its rather corny framing device, death speaking in a voiceover furnished by actor Roger Allam, shuts up after waxing poetic.

The quirky man of courage, who is also half of the father-daughter tandem, is Geoffrey Rush. An outstanding actor, Rush would’ve singlehandedly stolen the show, had it not been for the also excellent performances of Emily Watson as his wife and Sophie Nˇlisse - talented well beyond her 13 years - as  their adopted child. It should be noted that Watson’s Rosa switches mid-movie from a Wicked Witch of the West type (“like a thunderstorm,” in her daughter’s words) to Mary Poppins. This is not the fault of the actress, but of the character; whether the character as created by novelist Markus Zusak, screenwriter Michael Petroni or director Brian Percival, I do not know.

Kudos to casting supervisor Kate Dowd, in any case, and to cinematographer Florian Ballhaus. The latter would seem at this point a potential Academy Award recipient for his contribution. Ballhaus’ keen sense of composition has produced some remarkable footage in “The Book Thief,” showing for example a train’s journey through a desolate yet beautiful snowscape, a nighttime urban panorama and high-angle views of a schoolyard fight and the residue of a catastrophe. One thinks again of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and the obvious attention to mise-en-scene in that Elia Kazan production.

“The Book Thief,” unlike “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” is a meandering story with an overly long conclusion. But Ballhaus’ photography and the acting of Rush, Watson and Nˇlisse make up for that.

‘The Book Thief’


Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Barbara Auer, Roger Allam

Directed by: Brian Percival

Rating: PG-13

Running time: 131 minutes

Release date: today