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Movie review: The Book Thief

Updated on March 1, 2014

Nazis, understandably, have never been seen in a good light. Even Max Clifford would have difficultly putting a good PR spin on their WWII exploits. Mel Brooks had a fair crack though in 1968 with his The Producers, where he had them singing and dancing along to the likes of Springtime for Hitler.

This film, based on Marcus Zusak's best-selling young adults novel of the same name, mostly ignores all the horrific atrocities Hitler and his followers committed, deciding instead to centre its story around one element – that of book burning.

It's 1938 and young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is on a train bound to a new town in Germany with her mother and young brother. Unfortunately for her, Liesel's mother will be leaving her there with Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann; not relatives but her new foster parents. Her mother is doing it for her own good though; as a Communist, her life and those of her family, are in danger, so she is fleeing without them.

Although Rosa is on the grumpy side, Liesel soon finds comfort in her new surroundings. She struggles at school however, due to the fact that she can't read. With the help of Hans however, she not only learns to read, but develops a real appetite for books. Unfortunately, with a Second World War on the cards, propaganda is rife, and the Nazis are keen to promote the destruction of books, by having mass book burnings in the street.

After experiencing this debacle, Liesel is horrified. Still, bitten by the book bug, she doesn't let the evil of the Nazis deter her from her finding other ways of fulfilling her new-found addiction. It's not so simple under this oppressive regime though, and her love of books could put her in real jeopardy.

There's an unsettlingly gentle sensation to this film; it may have Nazis in it, but they may as well be mischievous clowns for the air of threat they represent. If Downton Abbey did an episode with Nazis in, they would probably come across like this, offering elements of mild peril. It's no surprise then that this debut feature from British film director Brian Percival, has previously directed six episodes of – surprise, surprise – Downton Abbey.

Sure, there are some warming performances from Rush and Watson, and in particular from the young Nélisse, but it's all too twee and predictable. And although the Nazis aren't necessarily portrayed in the most of evil of lights, the film does have one main enemy – its duration. Percival manages to make its considerable two hour and ten minute length feels like it plays out WW II in real time, such does it drag on. Where is Mel Brooks and his musical historical numbers when you really need him?

Perhaps The Book Thief should have remained just that – a book – as this adaptation is certainly one that should have stayed on the shelf.

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