Fox quietly positions 'The Book Thief' from 'Downton Abbey' director in the middle of awards season

Posted by · 7:07 am · August 10th, 2013

Fox has made a big splash recently with materials for Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” positioning it well with a New York Film Festival debut and pretty much following the “Life of Pi” playbook for what could be the filmmaker’s first big awards player to date. But meanwhile, a Holocaust drama from a “Downton Abbey” director with Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and 12-year-old lead actress has been quietly positioned in the midst of the Oscar fray and could be another player for the studio.

Indeed, the Nov. 15 positioning for Brian Percival’s “The Book Thief” was done so quietly in fact that it slipped right past the first outlet to let you know it might happen — ahem, us. We’ve had the film situated on our charts since they were first updated in early July, waiting to see if the move would come to fruition.

A couple of weeks ago, Fox locked it in, putting the young adult adaptation in the same release date air as Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” But has the studio set the board for a potential awards season sneak attack, or is the fall just a better strategic time to release the film, which was originally set for Jan. 17? Time will tell.

Adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, “The Book Thief” stars Sophie Nélisse as a young foster girl living outside of Munich who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing. That thievery eventually extends to books, ever-scarce in Nazi-infested Germany. She soon discovers the joy of reading and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man being hidden in her family’s basement. Rush and Watson star as her foster parents.

Nélisse won a Genie Award recently for her feature film debut in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee “Monsieur Lazhar.” Rush, of course, won an Oscar for 1996’s “Shine” while Watson is herself a two-time Academy Award nominee for “Breaking the Waves” and “Hilary and Jackie.”

“The Book Thief” is the second theatrical feature for Percival, who has been a major directorial force on PBS’ Emmy Award-winning series “Downton Abbey.” It obviously has a meaty premise that plays like something of an echo to George Clooney’s expected awards play, “The Monuments Men.” And if awards are indeed part of the strategy, Fox is being smart by keeping it low on the radar, for now. If nothing else, keep an eye on the original score grabbing a nomination. As we all know, the legendary John Williams picks up nominations in his sleep and, perhaps surprisingly, he’s currently scoring the film, one of the rare occasions of him taking on a job that isn’t a Steven Spielberg or a George Lucas joint.

“There are some devastating aspects of watching a girl going from age 10 to 15 trying to make sense of a world so badly off balance,” Rush told USA Today in a recent first look at the film that was mostly an introductory piece for Nélisse. “But in a way it’s such a fresh story, there is such rich detailed humanity in the ordinary lives of these people.”

Along with films like Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace,” David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and the aforementioned “The Monuments Men,” “The Book Thief” will be bypassing the festival route in favor of a big immediate splash. Will it figure into the Oscar landscape? It certainly could.

“The Book Thief” arrives in theaters on Nov. 15.

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