Based on the beloved best-selling book comes this profoundly moving story of a girl who transforms the lives of those around her during World War II, Germany. Although Liesel (Sophie N‚lisse) is illiterate when she is adopted by a German couple (OSCARr Winner Geoffrey Rush* and Emily Watson**), her adoptive father encourages her to learn to read. Ultimately, the power of words helps Liesel and Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew hiding in the family's home, escape from the events unfolding around them in this extraordinary, acclaimed film directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey).
Skillfully pared down from Markus Zusak's celebrated young adult novel, The Book Thief presents a somewhat sanitized glimpse of Nazi Germany and the war from the uniquely innocent view of an adolescent girl. At first the perspective seems to be from the narrator, a bored, yet amused voice we learn is Death, presumably taking a brief holiday to comment on the experience of young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) and the evolving disruptions around her. After Liesel is separated from her brother and mother in sharp and unsettling fashion, she lands at the home of protective, penurious foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in a small village somewhere in the picturesque German countryside. When she's teased at school for being illiterate, the kindly Hans makes a fun project of teaching her to read. Rosa is a persnickety presence for both of them, but it's mainly a façade as the couple embrace Liesel tighter even as the situation around them grows more dire. At a Nazi book burning a horrified Liesel surreptitiously snatches a random volume from the flames. The wife of the local Bürgermeister is the only one who notices, and she compassionately allows Liesel to visit her dead son's library, where she soon earns the movie's title moniker. Liesel's newfound love of literature begins informing her actions as more is revealed about the Hubermanns and the toll of wartime village life becomes more desperate. Liesel makes two friends who are vague romantic draws--her thoughtful, rebellious neighbor Rudy, and Max, the Jewish son of a man to whom Hans owes his life. The Hubermanns risk everything by hiding Max, a shining light of idealized nobility for Liesel. The Book Thief is lackadaisical and episodic, with an affecting spirit brought to life by all the performances and the exceptional period detail. Rush is superb as a lovable, complicated man, as is Watson, whose stern manner is only a mask. Nélisse steals the show, along with many hearts, by portraying Liesel as a malleable force whose passivity develops into nascent intensity as she grows up with the horrible changes unfolding around her. Death has a place, and not just as a commentator. But the villainy of Nazism and shadow of the Holocaust evades center stage as an overriding focus of this moving story. Less a tearjerker than a tear-tugger, The Book Thief steals heartfelt emotion, though it will mostly be gladly given. The first-rate score is by John Williams, taking a break from Steven Spielberg's production ensemble for the first time in a long while. --Ted Fry