The Holocaust is an event that has been covered in many different ways in various movies. It is an event that lends itself to different approaches; consisting of various individuals, pieces and moments that make up the complete picture. That means that we can get a dark, starkly realistic portrayal, like Schindler’s List or a more mystical, fantastical view like that in Life is Beautiful. It can be at the front of the centre of the movie – being the main strand that ties all elements together or be in the background, playing out behind the scenes as another story unravels. It is the latter approach that The Book Thief takes.
To be blunt, The Book Thief isn’t about The Holocaust at all. It is a coming of age story, following one young girl’s experience with a new family in one of the most extreme and horrendous moments in European history. That isn’t to say that The Holocaust and The Second World War don’t play their part, and there is plenty of Nazi guards and Jewish persecution to witness, but that never feels like the focus of the movie.
This is unfortunately the main fault with the film. If you don’t place the historic element of the story at the forefront, what you are left with is something quite generic and lifeless. The story is put together very well but doesn’t really deliver anything we haven’t seen before. As coming of age movies go, we have all the usual boxes ticked; kindly father and oppressive mother, emotional and educational development, a blossoming relationship with a young (male) friend and even a secret, dangerous relationship with an adult. It is all there but is also been done many times before. The Holocaust element helps make it slightly different but doesn’t really distract from the more generic element.
It also under-uses one of the most original parts of the film. The movie is narrated by Death, with the faceless character giving his point of view on events, the characters who will lose their lives and in some cases the thoughts they had before their lives were taken. It is a very original way for a movie to be narrated but he is used infrequently and could have injected something slightly more original into a movie which suffers from familiarity.
Familiarity is the major issue with the movie. The story has been done, the history has been covered before and often better. It well acted, with great support from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson but they hardly have to stretch their acting credential. The children act well too, particularly the young actress at the centre of the story – Sophie Nelisse. Again, she isn’t asked to really do too much though.
Overall, The Book Thief is an example of a well-written, ably acted and solid coming of age story but nothing more. It has two very distinct and original elements which it could have easily put front and centre, the Holocaust/Second World War and the choice of narrator. Unfortunately, these are under-used and leave the film feeling forgettable.
Rating – 3
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