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The Book Thief

December 5, 2013

Philomena (*** ½) PG13

Steve Coogan’s character in Stephen Frears splendid new drama, Philomena, hit very close to home on more than one occasion during the unspooling of the film. Perhaps that’s why I took to the pic as much as I did. In the film, Coogan portrays the real life Brithish journalist Martin Sixsmith, whose career has hit the skids.

He wants to leave his mark on the world by contributing something of substance but is plagued by a heavy amount of cynicism that informs his every decision. Why he’s such a cynic we never really find out but it’s pretty evident that something substantive must have taken place in his past.

As for me, I felt a kinship with him every step of the way.

Not long after finding himself unemployed, Sixsmith chances to cross paths with Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), an elderly woman who has spent fifty years longing to connect with the son that was taken from her while living in a convent as a youth. Lee wants the reporter to utilize his skills in order to help her locate her son. Sixsmith readily pooh-poohs the idea of doing a human-interest story right from the get-go, but eventually is persuaded by an editor. Martin and Philomena are then off on an adventure that will take them down serpentine paths on their way to finding the whereabouts of the son who was denied the love of his birth mother.

Judi Dench & Steve Coogan

The film pulls no punches in taking shots at the blatant hypocrisies inherent not only in the Catholic Church but in many other organized religions. Coogan, who co-wrote the script, gives his character most of the subversive subtext found in the film, while Dench’s character remains a woman of faith in spite of the injustices done to her. The film doesn’t take sides and leaves it to the audience to decipher whose outlook on life may be the correct one. Dench and Coogan give it their all and the chemistry these two actors share in their moments together on-screen are only part of what makes the film as special as it is.

Philomena is the kind of film that gives one much to ponder without falsely manipulating the audience along the journey. I really like the way that director Stephen Frears lightens the load with a dose of humor from time to time to make the material easier to swallow. He handles the heavy stuff with grace and aplomb and keeps the film moving at a good clip—just a tad over ninety minutes. Frears’ a good choice for the material as are the two remarkable leads, leaving the audience with an indelibly moving and, ultimately, uplifting experience.

I sincerely hope that Philomena is remembered come awards time. It certainly deserves recognition and to be seen by anyone who cares about life and the injustices that are thrust upon us all during the course of day to day living.
The Book Thief (** ½) PG13

I really can’t put my finger on what exactly it is, but I most definitely get the sense that something has been lost in the cinematic translation of Marcus Zuslak’s novel, The Book Thief. Perhaps it’s because the film feels too often as if it can’t decide what audience it wants to cater to, the young adult crowd that Zuslak apparently had in mind, or the older, world-weary segment of the adult populace that the filmmakers are smart enough to know carry the majority of disposable income required to fill theater seats. Regardless of what the case may be, The Book Thief has some good things going for it but not enough to consider the film a yardstick by which to measure all future novel to film adaptations.

The film begins and ends with the off-camera voice of death (Roger Allam), relating the tale of Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), an orphan in World War II era Germany. 

Geoffrey Rush & Sophie Nelisse

Liesel has been sent to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), by her mother. It’s never really clear why Liesel’s mother can’t take care of her and the only screen time that character is allotted is when we see her traveling on a train with Liesel and her younger brother in early scenes. Liesel’s brother dies on the train before she can arrive at her destination. After a heartbreaking scene involving the boy’s funeral, Liesel is introduced to her new family and surroundings. The other characters in her new life include neighborhood boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and, Max, a young Jewish man whom Hans and Rosa shelter from the Nazis.  

Liesel is quiet and reserved initially and Rosa’s stern demeanor does the girl no favors in terms of bringing her out of her shell. Liesel, naturally, feels more comfortable with the affable and laid-back Hans, whose preference is to spend his spare time playing the accordion and teaching Liesel how to read and embrace the power of the written word. Liesel’s connections with Max and Rudy also play a pivotal part in her maturation over the course of the film.

It should be obvious from the film’s title that books play a large part in Liesel’s life. Rosa operates a laundry service in order to make ends meet. Liesel regularly delivers the finished product to one of her  foster mother’s clients, who embraces the girl’s passion and allows the girl to read books from her collection upon her regular visits. When a turn of events shake up Liesel’s routine, she begins taking the books from the woman’s library as a way to shield herself and others from the horrors of Nazi Germany.

There are some nice moments in The Book Thief to be sure. The problem with the film is that it’s all too evident that some -elements that worked in the book simply do not translate to film. It’s a problem that’s as old as the movies itself and one that The Book Thief has not managed to solve.

Both of these films are playing at the Carmike Theater in Hickory, and other theaters in this area.

Questions or comments? Email Adam at



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