One of the oddest developments of this awards season is the lack of attention that The Book Thief has received. The Book Thief has all of the hallmarks of a Best Picture contender from the 1990s: a plot based around the Holocaust, directing that emphasizes story over style and a supporting cast of veteran actors. Yet the film debuted to poor critical reception and received a lone Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. However, the main reason for why this film missing out on being an Oscar player is so shocking is that it’s actually a decent film. It doesn’t take risks, but The Book Thief is certainly well crafted and has a story that can resonate with many.
The Book Thief follows Death recounting his encounter with a young girl (Sophie Nelisse), who learns that she most grow up quickly as she is sent to live with her foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) on the eve of Nazi Germany. The film is directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey’s main director) and is written by Michael Petroni (writer of the third The Chronicles of Narnia).
The Book Thief is definitely formulaic, but for a director whom is most known for his television work, Brian Percival finds a way to give this film a sense of scope and grandeur. It’s not great filmmaking, but Percival does enough to get over some of the story’s problems. The story takes a while to get going, but when it does enough characters are introduced (and are superbly acted to boot) to keep you interested. It seems like almost all of the characters get enough attention to seem like someone worth investing in, which becomes key to the film’s emotional third act working as well as it does.
The real strongpoint of this film, though, is the cast. Sophie Nelisse delivers a performance beyond her years as Liesel, the film’s main character. The film really depends on her to maintain the film’s focus throughout its runtime without doing anything showy. She not only does that but also finds a way to make her character interesting. The real highlight of the film, though, is Geoffrey Rush. It’s the type of performance that Rush normally delivers, but Rush is just so good at it that you can’t help but admire what he is doing. Emily Watson also makes the most of one of her best roles in years. Another performance of note belongs to Ben Schnetzer as a Jewish refugee that the main characters come across. Schnetzer has had some minor roles on some American TV shows, but this is his first big role, and he completely delivers. In some ways he becomes the emotional center of the film, and he really delivers. The cast of this film is so great that even a small role such as Roger Allam (such an underrated character actor) as the voice of Death is extremely effective.
The Book Thief can be quite generic, but some of its components are exemplary enough to make it rise above the typical film to be described as Oscar bait.