Oscar season is upon us. The time of year in which every studio releases their most potent pictures in hopes of them getting buzz, box office, and many coveted Oscar awards. The season will have its fair share of contenders, but Oscar season has created a genre within itself, the Oscar bait film. Oscar bait if you have not heard is a film that is obviously vying for an Oscar, by displaying a big cast and important subject matter, for the purpose of getting the Academy’s attentions. These films usually have similar tropes, like being set in a period, having a lead who is at a disadvantage, or being based on an acclaimed novel. One of the biggest examples of that seemed to be The Book Thief.
Based off an acclaimed novel, being set in Nazi-occupied Germany, and following a young lead who is adopted, The Book Thief has many of the Oscar bait cliches, making me more and more disinterested in the film by the minute. Add that with a soaring score by John Williams and advertisements exaggerating the film’s importance, and Book Thief looked like one of the most shameless examples of Oscar bait. Surprisingly though, The Book Thief is an accomplished flick.
With the ternary of the Nazi party and World War II coming ahead, young foster child Liesel stands against the crowd by losing herself into books. Along with her parents Hans and Rosa, the three also face the risk of taking in a young Jewish man named Max.
From a production standpoint, this is one of the year’s best looking films. The production team here basically filmed on a studio location, and the result really looks nothing like it. The town itself has a very distinct, yet accurate look to the time period, and never felt contained by its limited shooting space. The amount of time and effort put into each minuscule detail is obvious, and very much appreciated.
Aside from the production standpoint, the rest of the aesthetics are equally great. Shot by long-time cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, the film does a nice job of avoiding period piece cliches of shooting a flick, like messing up the color pallet or adding a tint. Sure, it’s shot in a very straight forward way, but that is all this film really needed. The score is also fantastic. John Williams is the best of the best when it comes to scoring films, and does a great job here, creating a score that is subtle and majestic.
While this film does not have the big casts like most Oscar films have, the acting is fantastic. No one seems to be talking about it, but Geoffrey Rush really should be in consideration for Best Supporting Actor. Rush’s performance is instantly engaging from start to finish, as he whisks audiences into the movie with his quick-wit charm and dramatic potency. With the right goal, Rush can really create magic on the screen, and this is a perfect role for him.
The lead of the film, though, is the young Sophie Nelisse. While she is surrounding by good talent, the film asks young Nelisse to carry the film on her shoulders, and she is able to do so well. Nelisse is going to be an actress to watch as she goes, as her natural affability and acting range is quite impressive. Other supporting talents like Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, and Ben Schnetzer do an equally as good job.
A tricky act to balance always is tone, especially with a film like this. The Book Thief is mostly an uplifting tale, but has its fair share of very dark and sad moments, that are some times tough to watch. The balance of this is a smooth and practical one, as the film feels like it strikes a great balance between being rather bleak, and having an underlying feeling of hope. Largely deserving of thanks here is the director of Downton Abbey fame Brian Percival, who was able to strike a similar tonal balance.
Perhaps the most difficult part of making the film is adapting the acclaimed source material to a film format. Michael Petroni took on the task, and largely succeed at such a task. Petroni’s biggest success from adapting the film comes from the film’s messages, which are as well-developed as they are in the book. It’s not just simply a message about the importance of books, but the importance of the concepts books bring, such as joy and creative expression, that is quite inspiring.
Some elements of the novel are not updated very well to the film. Probably the biggest is the narration of the film. In the book, the narrator was Death, and for a novel, that actually worked pretty well. In the film, the narration, which is by Death itself, just does not work. It certainly serves a purpose, but it just does not feel natural when combined with the rest of the film.
Also not working that well is the ending, more specifically the final scenes. While these scenes have a great deal of pathos to them, the ending overall feels very rushed compared to the film’s slower pace. The sudden speed up really feels off, which lessens some of the ending’s pathos that was built up. It’s certainly not the worst ending ever, but it could have been executed better.
An element about the film that cant be denied is that it all feels familiar. While this film sure takes some new angles on certain aspects, most of these plotlines have been seen and done before. While that certainly does not ruin the good execution of these elements, it certainty dampers them a bit.
The Book Thief doesn’t do anything that out-of-the-box, but is surprisingly well executed and has a big heart. Ignore the poor advertisements and give the flick a chance.
Take a Drink: during each narration.
Take a Drink: each time a character reads a book.
Do a Shot: for each flash of the Nazi flag.