- Composed by John Williams
- Sony Classical / 2013 / 53m
A child’s eye view of Nazi Germany, The Book Thief (based on Australian author Markus Zusak’s acclaimed novel) tells the story of a girl who lives through the harrowing times with the help of a love of books, a Jew hiding in her family house and her foster parents. The film stars Sophie Nélisse as the main character, Liesel, and Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as her foster parents; it’s directed by Downton Abbey‘s Brian Percival. It’s generating a lot of buzz and its release in the traditional “awards slot” is a decent sign that it’s expected to do well.
It’s probably fair to say that the film wasn’t on the radar of many film music fans until the surprising announcement – which didn’t happen until the eve of the recording sessions – that the great John Williams was to provide its score. He may be the pre-eminent film composer of his (perhaps any) generation, but Williams – now 81 – seemed to have been in semi-retirement (in terms of writing film scores) for some time now, making exceptions only for his friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; indeed, the last time he scored a film which didn’t involve either of those men was his last Harry Potter score, in 2004. Any new score from John Williams these days feels like a special event; one for a non-Spielberg film perhaps even more so.
There aren’t any surprises in The Book Thief – which itself is not surprising (he’s 81!) – instead, the score album plays almost like a comforting letter from an old friend, a highly-welcome one at that. It oozes class from every pore, a young whippersnapper in terms of this composer’s glorious career but with all the hallmarks of a classic vintage. The main themes are sad, of course – but somehow also very homely, with a personal feel, thanks in no small part to the superb piano solos. There’s a real clarity to the solos throughout – Williams’s orchestration staggering as ever – just listen to the haunting “I Hate Hitler!”, harp and oboe and piano taking turns to tug the heartstrings; such moving music. In common with most cues on the album, it’s quite short, particularly by this composer’s standards; but the musical structure is as strong as ever. Everything has a beginning, middle and end; nothing here feels bitty.
While there is generally a sombre tone, this is a story from a child’s perspective and as such there is often a compelling innocence to it; and just occasionally, a delightfully playful air. “Foot Race” is a brilliant little scherzo, the type only John Williams has ever really done in film music; quite wonderful. In terms of other scores, there are hints of Angela’s Ashes, plus the slightest of reminders of certain aspects of Memoirs of a Geisha and Presumed Innocent. Those imagining another Schindler’s List are wide of the mark – this isn’t so reverential and, while there are harrowing moments, they are done very differently.
Actually, it’s life that dominates here – an indomitable spirit. The genuine warmth of “Max Lives” late on the album is lightyears from the kind of Hollywood schmaltz that film reviewers so often accuse Williams of doing (by daring to put music in films that people might actually notice); then there is strained anguish in “Rudy is Taken”, an emotional powerhouse of a cue. Best of all is the concert arrangement of the main theme which closes the album; it blossoms in its fuller, longer arrangement, again passed around various soloists, the whole orchestra swelling too. It’s moving, emotional music, the central melody memorable; it’s tragic, but spirited, very beautiful.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in The Book Thief. It’s well-worn territory. It sounds like you expect it to sound. And that means it sounds good. Williams has always been a master at telling a story through his music; he tells this one beautifully. There’s heartache and beauty, side by side; agony and ecstasy. Every spine-tingling chill is eventually contrasted with one of warmth. Class never ages and Williams has class in abundance; as his forays into film music become more occasional, they become all the more special.