First of all, if you haven’t read The Book Thief please do read it. It’s a beautiful and moving book. And you’ll probably enjoy the film more for having read the book first, I know I did. I can get bogged down in comparisons between book and film when discussing film adaptations so I’ll try not to do that here.
Set in a small town somewhere in Germany, the story follows Liesel, a girl given up for adoption by her mother in the years before the outbreak of the second World War. Starting with her adoption we follow her life and relationships with her new family and neighbours through the war period. The main character besides Liesel is Rudy, the son of her new neighbours who sees her arrive and immediately falls in love with her. Over the years they develop a strong friendship.
The hardships, persecution and politics of the pre-war and wartime period are told from the point of view of the children who understand what is going on but not why it is happening. Although this film centres around young characters, it is not always completely child friendly. It does not shy away from some of the gritty realities of the Nazi regime or wartime suffering. The action is mostly confined to the small town where Liesel lives and events she personally experiences though and isn’t a film about the war or the holocaust as such but focuses on the individual characters experiences of it.
The fact that the narrator of this film is Death shows that it isn’t scared of approaching more difficult subjects. Death’s insights into the actions and final thoughts of individuals are at turns witty and moving although occasionally overly sentimental.
Despite being unable to read or write at the start of the film Liesel loves books. Her family is too poor to buy books so she begins to “borrow” them from all sorts of places. With the help of her adoptive father (who is barely literate himself) she learns to read and write and is soon a voracious reader, helping her to both learn more about the world and to escape from some of the harsher realities of her life.
The story is beautifully told and emotionally engaging. Only occasionally slipping into the maudlin. The main child characters are well acted and believable. The supporting child characters are generally nondescript sketches, usually fighting with or shouting rude names at Liesel and Rudy. Adult characters are a bit more hit and miss but generally support the child characters very well. Emily Watson who plays Liesel’s adoptive mother Rosa is uncomfortably believable as the harsh woman who initially resents this strange new daughter she has acquired. Watching Rosa and Liesel’s relationship slowly soften over the years is lovely.
Geoffrey Rush is a bit of an odd choice to play a German (adoptive) father but pulls off the role very well. It’s not so much that he pulls off the accent and the few German words he has to speak well but he just naturally fits right in to the character. He is his new daughters first and most stalwart champion and loves her unconditionally from the beginning.
There is an interesting mix of nationalities in the cast and sometimes the accents can wander a bit which is occasionally distracting. The majority of the dialogue is in English with occasional German words thrown in to remind you that really they should all be speaking German.
A lovely and moving film based on a lovely and moving book.