Is 'The Book Thief' Another WWII Drama Oscar Voters Cannot Resist?
by Joey Magidson
November 10, 2013
As I mentioned when talking about the now delayed film The Monuments Men, one surefire way to get Academy members to notice your film is to center it around World War II. Oscar voters have a penchant to pay more attention when the antagonist of your movie happens to be Nazis. Even when you're not considered to be an absolutely amazing film (cough, The Reader, cough), being a World War II flick is a real trump card. Opening this weekend in limited release is the latest movie of this ilk, The Book Thief, and my response is a resounding shrug of the shoulders. The movie is fair, but nothing special and not too deserving of Oscar attention. Still, it's got Nazis, so a bit of attention must be paid, at least in some way.
Frankly, I never quite expected this one to be a major player. I know I've said that a few times about other Oscar non-starters, but this one isn't quite a no go, so it's a different story. The Book Thief is angling to be this year's version of The Reader, or more aptly, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (two of the worst reviewed Best Picture nominees of the modern era). That is to say, it has aspirations of rising above middling critical word of mouth and appealing directly to the hearts and tear ducts of Academy members. Quality wise, this tale of a little girl surviving the horrors of WWII isn't up to snuff in my eyes, but in terms of convincing enough weepy Oscar voters to give it a Best Picture nod, that's not an impossibility.
I don't want to make it out like Brian Percival's film is terrible. I think it's average and contains a great John Williams score as well as a solid lead turn from young up and comer Sophie Nelisse as well as a nice supporting performance by the always reliable Geoffrey Rush. Those are the highlights, but the good doesn't quite outweigh the bad, with Percival's direction missing a strong sense of pacing, the script by Michael Petroni lacking the narrative thrust to keep you interested, and some odd decisions holding you at arm's length. It's not a flick I'd recommend, so if it weren't for the subject matter, I'd say cross it off your predictions entirely. The subject matter counts for something though, so that can't be done.
Currently, the movie sits at a middling 59% on Rotten Tomatoes, just shy of what would move it from a rotten ranking to a fresh one. Keep in mind though, this is only with a shade over 30 reviews to cull from since it's only first beginning its theatrical run. Perhaps a strong showing of support from the heartland will propel this contender, much like a lagging contender in a presidential primary. By that comparison, look at The Book Thief currently as a Oscar hopeful version of the also ran who knows they can't compete with the big boys in New York and Los Angeles, so they focus in on winning middle America. Percival's film would do well to follow this lead.
If it suddenly does manage to break out and become a big time player, where could it show up? Well, the pie in the sky hopes for it would have it scoring nominations in Best Picture, Best Director for Percival, Best Actress for Nelisse, Best Supporting Actor for Rush, Best Supporting Actress for Emily Watson, Best Adapted Screenplay for Petroni, and various technical categories, with special attention paid to Williams in Best Original Score. Those are the fantasy nods, while reality rests likely with a long shot Best Picture campaign and a decently likely chance that a nom is scored in Best Original Score.
One thing that definitely works in the favor of The Book Thief is the delay of The Monuments Men to next year. It can compete pretty much uncontested for the WWII vote, if you will. Sometimes it seems like certain members of the Academy will embrace anything in that setting. Well, this film will pretty thoroughly test that theory, one way or the other.
Currently, I only have The Book Thief getting a nomination in Original Score for Williams, but it's possible that I'm underestimating it. I doubt it, and the fact that reviews were more or less embargoed until opening day didn't help any, but there's certainly a chance that this flick will do better than I'm expecting. It won't be the most popular contender in the race, but it does have that secret ingredient that the Academy loves, so at the very least, keep it in mind as the season progresses.