A thief in the light

A com­pelling, but un­even adap­ta­tion of the beloved book yields a brightly shin­ing life at its heart.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MOVIES - Re­view by DAVIN ARUL en­ter­tain­ment@thes­tar.com.my

IT IS a tragedy of­ten re­peated through­out his­tory, where cer­tain books are con­demned out­right with­out a sin­gle page be­ing turned. Worse than mere con­dem­na­tion are the book burn­ings in the name of main­tain­ing in­tel­lec­tual or moral pu­rity, like what hap­pened in Nazi Ger­many (an event recre­ated in this film); or burn­ings that are threat­ened, as re­cently hap­pened here.

How sad that books – those in­nocu­ous-seem­ing, yet “dan­ger­ous” bricks of pulp and cloth, repos­i­to­ries of ideas and in­sights, philoso­phies and faith, amaz­ing jour­neys to won­drous realms – are fre­quently made scape­goats to val­i­date fear and ig­no­rance, or to ad­vance a per­fid­i­ous po­lit­i­cal agenda.

Held in their proper re­gard, how­ever, books can be gate­ways, step­ping stones to en­light­en­ment, and even life­lines.

For the young pro­tag­o­nist of this grim, but hope­ful tale, set in Nazi Ger­many in the pre-war and war years, books are all that and more.

When we meet young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), she is on her way to be given over to a fos­ter fam­ily. Her lit­tle brother has just died. A book falls out of the gravedig­ger’s jacket and she steals it.

Then we learn that she is ac­tu­ally il­lit­er­ate, yet the al­lure of books is not lost on her even then. Soon af­ter be­ing “de­liv­ered” to her fos­ter fam­ily – the Hu­ber­manns, Hans (Ge­of­frey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Wat­son) – she starts learn­ing to read, bond­ing with the kindly Hans as he teaches her.

There is so much more to The Book Thief, based on the mul­ti­pleaward-win­ning novel by Aus­tralian writer Markus Zusak, than sim­ply Liesel’s pas­sage to lit­er­acy. For one thing, the tale is nar­rated by Death (Roger Al­lam), and it takes place dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly busy time for him. Movies nar­rated by dead people, sure; but it’s not ev­ery day the Reaper him­self stops to tell a tale.

Which makes you won­der, why Liesel is so spe­cial (we’ll soon find out) and at just what point in her life Liesel is go­ing to get her fi­nal visit from him (ditto). There is some fore­shad­ow­ing in the nar­ra­tion, in­volv­ing var­i­ous char­ac­ters – in­clud­ing a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Sch­net­zer) whom the Hu­ber­manns hide in their base­ment – but you’ll be sur­prised more than once at the fate of its char­ac­ters.

The grim (ahem) fi­nal­ity as­so­ci­ated with its nar­ra­tor aside, The Book Thief is also a story of friend­ship, com­pas­sion, de­fi­ance and of or­di­nary people strug­gling to sur­vive in ter­ri­ble times sur­rounded by hard­ship, crip­pling fear and para­noia. Fam­i­lies are torn apart when fa­thers and sons are con­scripted into ser­vice; those ex­posed as Jews in their midst are shown no mercy, and stand­ing up for your neigh­bour can in­vite a whole lot of trou­ble to your doorstep.

brian Per­ci­val Sophie Nélisse, Ge­of­frey rush, emily Wat­son

And as Liesel makes her way along this mine­field of a path, stop­ping now and then to savour the iso­lated pock­ets of joy and beauty that people have a knack for pick­ing out amidst such dire cir­cum­stances, her sim­ple jour­ney takes on the air of a much more mo­men­tous one.

Some things about The Book Thief keep it from be­ing a wholly sat­is­fy­ing film. The pac­ing is leisurely and sel­dom picks up, and the emo­tional level re­mains some­what flat through­out, even when we are sup­posed to be drawn into Liesel’s dis­cov­ery of the many won­ders be­tween the cov­ers of her books or to re­coil from the vi­o­lence of Kristall­nacht.

Yet its char­ac­ters con­stantly shine through, de­spite the oc­ca­sional sense of de­tach­ment you get from Brian Per­ci­val’s di­rect­ing: the ma­ture-be­yond-her-years Liesel, who has not for­got­ten the sim­ple joys of child­hood; her best friend Rudy (Nico Lier­sch), the boy with hair the colour of lemons who idolises (the highly po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect, for those times) Jesse Owens; her com­pas­sion­ate fos­ter fa­ther Hans; and even Rosa, the lady “cloaked with thun­der” whose blus­ter hides a big heart.

Nélisse es­pe­cially is quite the rev­e­la­tion in this film, hold­ing her own along­side a vet­eran like Rush, cap­tur­ing the mo­ments where Liesel dis­plays a wis­dom that be­lies her years just as deftly as she does the ex­u­ber­ance of Liesel’s child­hood es­capades.

In one scene, Hans is lament­ing the seem­ing point­less­ness of their strug­gle, of stand­ing up for one an­other and of­fer­ing help and sup­port with­out thought of what it may cost them: “I’m not sure what it all meant. Ev­ery­thing he (Max) went through. Ev­ery­thing we did.”

“We were just be­ing people. That’s what people do,” replies Liesel, a sign of how the ini­tially with­drawn child with aban­don­ment is­sues has ac­cepted the re­al­i­ties of life with­out be­ing beaten down by them.

What­ever is­sues lovers of the orig­i­nal novel may have with the film adap­ta­tion, the lat­ter’s re­al­i­sa­tion of its cen­tral char­ac­ter as a won­der­ful, lu­mi­nous be­ing – one that you can in­deed ap­pre­ci­ate as be­ing wor­thy of Death’s “in­ter­est” – is a tri­umph.

Book her, Dano: ‘Well of course I’m sneak­ing into some­one’s home. I *am* the book thief af­ter all. duh.’

Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) can’t help be­ing over­joyed that her fos­ter fa­ther Hans (Ge­of­frey rush) has re­turned home from the war.

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