With one Holocaust movie now out, enter The Book Thief. Most Oscar watchers would not think The Book Thief would be the film to crash the Best Picture race but it might do just that once Academy members start screening it. For instance, check out Dennis Harvey’s opening graph in Variety about the Book Thief:
Markus Zusak’s international bestseller “The Book Thief” has been brought to the screen with quiet effectiveness and scrupulous taste by director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni. This tale of Nazi Germany seen from a child’s perspective translates into solidly engaging drama, albeit one that may not be starry, flashy or epic enough to muscle its way into the front ranks of awards-season contenders. Bolstered by the novel’s fans, the Fox release (which opens limited Nov. 8) should ride solid reviews and word of mouth to midlevel prestige returns in line with such comparable medium-scaled WWII dramas as “The Reader” and “The Pianist.”
Astute readers will note the other thing The Reader and The Pianist have in common. They were both Best Picture nominees. The Pianist ended up winning Screenplay, Director and Actor before losing Best Picture to Chicago. Thus, though Harvey dismisses The Book Thief as not being “big” enough to get in, he dismantles his own argument with these examples.
The Book Thief enters the race as yet another person-in-peril story of survival. But this time, it’s a teenage girl who is sent to live with a German couple — the excellent Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson (both are good enough to get into the supporting acting races). All around their family, the Nazis have infiltrated Germany. The nationalistic ubiquity of Hitler and the Swastika colors every element of their lives. The Nazis have taken to book burning — which offends the film’s star Sophie Nélisse as Leisel. Her passion for books ends up being her own quiet defeat of fascism. That passion eventually blooms into a passion for life. It’s a hard to watch but also delightful film that will nestle nicely into the holidays and will likely be that one DVD families put on during the holidays. It is also a film anyone can watch, young and old, rich and poor, Jew and gentile.
The Book Thief is scored by John Williams, no less. It’s directed by Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival, gorgeous cinematography by Florian Ballhaus. The standouts are Rush and Watson but the costumes, the art direction and the film’s moving ending all seem to point to The Book Thief having a good chance to be thought of as a contender, and one of the more soothing of the year.
Sure, it’s an incredibly crowded season. Pushing through will be difficult for any film that is outside the usual suspects. And yes, some might look at it as a “children’s movie,” which might also ghettoize it from voters. But it’s worth taking a look at. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year, among many.