Thursday, January 16, 2014

OSCAR WATCH: The Book Thief


You may not have remembered, but there was yet another World War II movie seeking Oscar attention this year. Said film is titled "The Book Thief" and it has managed to fall completely under the radar among the other fall releases. Well, after finally seeing it this week, I now understand why.
Based on the novel of the same name by Markus Zusak, the story begins in 1938 in Germany. Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) has been adopted by foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). The early days are rough for her, having to deal with Rosa's grumpiness and the embarrassment of not being able to read. With the war escalating, she eventually finds comfort in her new home and along with Hans, she becomes an avid reader. One day a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) arrives at their home seeking shelter and Liesel forges a lifelong relationship with him.
Of course, the plot is a bit more complicated than that but the film always seems to come back to the theme of friendship. In a way, it illustrates one of the film's main problems. Its forced sentimentality is often at odds with the atmosphere of the setting. Narrated by "Death" itself, I can't recall ever being so turned off by a film's narration. It's absolutely tone deaf, coming across like a morbid bedtime story. In general, the events of the plot also seem so random at times. There are various scenes to show the growing relationships between the characters but they don't add much to the story. They're cute scenes, but the characters feel too hollow for them to be of any significance. In the end, you're bound to wonder what was the point of it all. There's not much insight into how Naziism psychologically affected the protagonist and there's not enough character depth for its "coming of age" pleasantries to leave much impact on the viewer. Hence, the film is unlikely to captivate either adult or young audiences.
The film is not without its merits though. It's handsomely made, with lovely cinematography, costume design and production design. In addition, the performances are all quite good, delivering the sincerity that the film requires. Of the cast, Geoffrey Rush is certainly the standout and it's also a good showcase for young Sophie Nelisse. If there's anything good to come out of it, it's the development of her career. She obviously has the talent. Hopefully she'll be featured in some stronger films in the future, because this one is too simplistic and underwhelming.

This is unlikely to feature much in the major Oscar categories, but simply based on its World War II premise, I wouldn't be surprised if it managed a few nods. Its strongest chance is in Best Original Score, as John Williams always seems to find himself in the Oscar conversation (48 nominations!). In my final Oscar predictions I've also predicted it to sneak in to Best Adapted Screenplay. We'll soon see if my gamble paid off.

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