The smash hit World War Two novel, The Book Thief, written by Australian writer Markus Zusak, is not just a tale of a young girl leading her life under a fascist regime, it is an example of human strength flourishing against the odds.
Brian Percival, former director of Downton Abbey, tasked with bringing Zusak’s acclaimed work to life, does so in a subtle, yet beautifully orchestrated fashion. The film, set in Germany under the Nazi regime, follows Liesel Meminger, a young girl separated from her communist mother and taken to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Illiterate on arrival, Meminger, with the help of some stolen books, learns to read, whilst also becoming unlikely friends with jew, Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), who the Hubermann’s shelter from the Nazis in their basement.
Percival’s subtlety in portraying the brutality of the Nazi regime is expertly executed, letting the film’s real focus lay on its characters, leaving the war to linger menacingly in the backdrop without ever being totally forgotten. Although less provocative than your average war film, the film still captures the raw emotions that come with such an event, captured perfectly through Hans’ tear-jerking departure after he is conscripted. Geoffrey Rush encapsulated Hans perfectly; his caring, laid back approach counteracts that of Rosa’s authoritative style, making for an enjoyable family dynamic.
The Book Thief is testament to the strength of human character when ones back is well and truly up against the wall. It emphasises that human goodness can prevail, even under the toughest of circumstances. The Hubermann’s anti-Nazi stance is evident throughout – as is Liesel’s ever-growing defiance against a regime that took her mother away.
The films’s biggest fault is its failure to utilise the narration of Death – a key proponent of the book. Although nicely done, we hear very little from Death (Roger Allam), an issue which suggests that Percival never quite got to grips with one of the novel’s most important aspects.
Do not expect your typical war film. The Book Thief is not action-based, but character-driven; emotional, and warm, with a dark underbelly, Percival’s adaptation of the popular novel is a strong one, thanks to its stripped back approach and impressive cast.