The Book Thief, based on the bestselling novel by Markus Zusak, arrives from director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) in a page-to-screen effort worthy of its triumphant literary beginnings.
The story is set in Germany as the winds of World War II are starting to blow. A nation, ravaged by Depression and a lack of national pride after a bitter defeat in World War I and humiliating post-war peace, is eager to feel good about itself and more importantly, be united around something. In this case, it’s someone… Adolf Hitler.
The Book Thief follows Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) as she is traveling with her mother and brother when tragedy strikes. With nowhere left to turn, the 12-year-old is adopted by a couple, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). The audience can immediately grasp the gravity of the situation as Nazi flags adorn Hans and Rosa’s street and book burnings dominate the town square.
Two elements drive the drama, teased in The Book Thief trailer. Liesel has a budding passion for words, clearly a problem in this book-burning culture. Her adoptive father Hans too shares that joy, and the two of them convene often in the family basement to further expand their reading development and the overall discovery of literature as a whole.
The other aspect that drives The Book Thief is Hans and Rosa take in the adult son, Max (Ben Schnetzer), of a man who saved Hans’ life in World War I. He is a Jew, and it is a dangerous endeavor, but one they take with guard up.
The Book Thief is a unique take on the World War II story as it tackles the cultural attack of the Nazis, in addition to their violence directed at people they deem different. Percival weaves his web with adeptness and manages to cull the highlights of the book for the big screen adaptation. It doesn’t necessarily pack an enormous punch, but the horror of the war speaks for itself. There is no reason why, with a young girl as our lead, the horrors need to be spelled out horrifically.
If there is an issue we have with the movie, it is that it is narrated by death. Not quite the guy in a black robe walking around, but you get the idea it’s that guy. It’s a little disconcerting at the beginning when the narration begins. The film can stand on its own without it. The story is powerful enough that it is unfortunately a distraction.
The thing Movie Fanatic takes away most, and our The Book Thief review seeks to highlight, is that Nelisse is a joy to discover. She is in almost 90 percent of the movie and carries it with such strength and fortitude throughout. Rush and her possess a father-daughter chemistry that is utterly charming... and it is the heart and soul of this film.