As a canal boat glides across the glittering water of the grand canal, two boys peek out from the tarpaulin cover to gaze in awe at the place their mother built for them in her stories. Brothers Prosper (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Bo (Jasper Harris) are wide eyed, recently orphaned, and on the run from people who want to split them up. The stowaways are revealed as they pull up to the docks, and they disappear off into the winding streets of Venice. Rewatching The Thief Lord as an adult maybe reveals how it’s dated since its 2005 release, but the same heartfelt magic of the story rings true, and I can’t help but appreciate its message even more.
Let loose in the city of their dreams, but without any real plans of how to get by, Prop and Bo (twelve and five respectively) are taken in by a rag tag group of orphans living in an abandoned cinema, led by the mysterious and self-proclaimed ‘Thief Lord’ Scipio (Rollo Weeks). But at its core, the film is about these two brothers who seem to represent two conflicting elements in this world: childish wonder and adult responsibility. Prop looks after his little brother and takes on the weight of supporting them both, but he’s struggling. In an early scene, Prop considers stealing a bottle of cough medicine for Bo but his conscience decides against it. And when they’re taken in by Scipio the first thing he asks is if they’re afraid of the police.
On the other hand, while Bo isn’t naïve about their situation, he sees magic everywhere. And I mean that literally. Their impending adventure will send them on a task to steal a fragment of a mysterious merry-go-round that has the power to change the ages of those who ride it – not that they’ll be told that. The kids have to solve the puzzle themselves to work out what they’re helping to piece together, and thanks to Bo’s childish wonder, they can. The creatures of the merry-go-round present themselves to his young eyes; statues of fish-men and seahorse fountains turn and smile at him, and a mermaid even swims past in the canal. This proves to be vital in their adventure, like when they’re given the photograph of what they must collect, it’s Bo that identifies it as a lion’s wing, not an angel’s, but is dismissed.
There are a lot of films that investigate how adults underestimate children, and The Thief Lord follows kids having to play in an adult world to get by. They steal from the ‘grown ups’ but are still dogged by them at every turn, their one place of haven: The Stella. Their very own abandoned cinema is their playground, a room circled with balconies and dotted with golden star lights. A swing made from a cinema seat dangles by the entrance, matching the rows of red velvet chairs and the curtain that hangs on the stage beside an enormous S lying on its side, its counterparts scattered across the tiered floors beside bundled blankets and pillows. It’s a place where only their own are allowed, and the kids fiercely defend it against the detective who tracks them down, because the alternative of being a pawn in the adult world – which The Stella hides them from – is the real nightmare.
It’s interesting to consider the ways Prosper helps the others extend their limited independence into the adult world when he barters with the sleazy antiques dealer for fair payment of their stolen hoard, despite the grown man’s regular attempts to scam and mock them. He has the concept of adult responsibility down, but it’s balanced with the flickers of Bo’s wonder (assumedly from before their mother died) which ultimately makes him more empathic. Though I began this story on the banks of Venice, the film itself begins outside a dark imposing building that Prop promptly escapes from to go find his brother. From the very first shot, the orphanage is presented as something out of a horror film or a gothic tragedy, and understandably; it’s a place where Prop is entirely at the mercy of the adults who have decided to keep him away from Bo.
The ‘responsible’ adults, like the Hartliebs (the brothers’ toxic aunt and uncle), aren’t so responsible after all and they’re as far away from the childish wonder that distinguishes their nephews as you can get. In the detective’s office, Mr Hartlieb becomes fascinated with a winged lion statuette on the desk and reaches to touch it, only to be scolded with a look by his wife and draw back in embarrassment. The irony of the winged lion – the very creature the orphans are sent on a mission to complete for the merry-go-round – aside, any sign of curiosity seems to be crushed underfoot in their wake. They represent when adult responsibility goes too far without thinking, forgetting what it’s like to be young, to want to have adventures but have your perspectives dismissed as childishness.
This is then contrasted by the ‘good’ adults. When we first meet Victor the private detective (Jim Carter) it is alongside two tortoises in a crate, whom he rescued from the fish market – much to the confusion of the Heartliebs who are there to hire him to go after the boys. There’s something charmingly cartoonish about the moustache collection hidden on the inside of his jacket that he whips out at a moment’s notice, and of course his ability to see two little creatures in a fish market and decide to take them home. To the Heartliebs (who eventually fire him when he starts to side with the orphans) he may seem immature, but to the audience he is the only person who has taken a moment to listen to the ragtag group of misfits and see things from their side.
The adults with any sense have that glimmer of childish wonder to them, that hint of mischievousness that balances out the tedium of responsibility but also lets them empathise with the younger characters. Like Ida, for example. Having got a shop owner off the orphans’ backs as they stand watching the house they need to infiltrate (ironically, hers), Ida asks what adventure they’re on. When they insist they aren’t guilty of any plotting, she responds with a spark in her eye; “that’s a shame. I was always getting into trouble when I was your age. The excitement of the unknown”. Prop, after a moment, admits that’s what his mother used to say.
He’s surprised to hear an adult finally see things the same way he does, and who can blame him when his world has guardians splitting up siblings and thievery as a necessary evil. As Ida makes a point of saying, “if children are in trouble, it’s usually because they’ve been misled or used by adults”. Lucky for them, it’s her that finds the group breaking into her house late at night looking for a wooden wing. These kids are stepping into an adult world to try and assert some of their own power – the €50,000 reward was going to make them independent like the grown ups.
Throughout the film Scipio presses Prop about becoming just as powerful as the grown ups by essentially becoming one, a wish which is possible in the climax. Having discovered the magical age-reversing or fast-forwarding properties of what they helped to reconstruct, Prop and Scipio sneak out to the shadowed island and find their way to the merry-go-round, but at the last minute Prop decides to let Scipio ride forward a few years by himself. “Bo wants me as a brother, not a father,” he says when Scip protests, and it’s at this point that I think Prop really becomes the responsible adult he’s been cornered towards since his mother died.
By embracing the childish wonder his brother encouraged, finally believing the magic of the merry-go-round and Venice, but having realised the tangible choice placed in front of him, he chooses to save that younger and empathic part of himself. When Prosper says he doesn’t want to be a father to Bo, I can’t help but think about how all his father figures – all responsible adults still alive at all – have failed him and Bo up to this point, but maybe a little youthful responsibility could work for them instead. And indeed, Bo is happy when his brother comes back with the now-adult Scipio and a story about a real magical merry-go-round.
Cornelia Funke’s books are usually entirely fantasy, but The Thief Lord, of which the film is based, becomes more magical realist, using its love of magic to prove how a little childish wonder is needed to get through life. The now adult Scipio helps the orphans settle down in Venice, under the guardianship of Victor and Ida (who make a late film appearance in token comedic disguises to continue their good deeds and show off how immaturity in adults makes life fun). Though Scipio is desperate to grow up and Prop buckles under the weight of adult responsibility thrown on him too early, the film echoes Peter Pan; saying you must never grow up and lose your sense of wonder, for it might just solve your problems and show you the way out.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Anything and Everything