Adapted from the internationally popular book-club staple by Markus Zusak, "The Book Thief" tries so hard to warm our hearts amid grotesque suffering, it goes a bit mad under the strain. It relays an uplifting story that, ill-advisedly, is not so much Holocaust-era as Holocaust-adjacent, determined to steer clear of too much discomfort.
Zusak follows the fortunes of his young heroine, Liesel, played by the talented young actress Sophie Nelisse, as she's adopted by Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson), the nicest German couple in wartime Germany despite Rosa's initial frost. Together these three do all they can to elude the ideological influence of their Nazi friends and neighbors while hiding a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer), the sickly fugitive son of a family friend, in their cellar.
Two paragraphs in, and already I sense the push-back from those profoundly moved by Zusak's novel. All I can do is describe why I believe the film version of "The Book Thief" to be well-meaning but disingenuous and finally galling, despite the valiant efforts of its cast.
The novel's leitmotifs and flourishes are there, starting with callow voice-over narration on the subject of human grief and resilience spoken by Death Itself and voiced by British actor Roger Allam. Liesel's younger brother dies en route to their new home. The year is 1938. While Liesel's adoptive mother fumes about this and that, kindly Hans, played by Rush with a bit too much character-actorly relish, reassures the young girl at their initial meeting with a wink and a smile. Thank God, she must be thinking. I have a scene-stealing character man for a dad.
At her brother's countryside funeral Liesel purloins a copy of "The Gravedigger's Handbook," which becomes her reading textbook. Now and then we hear Liesel in voice-over, writing to her mother, wherever she may be. Ensemble standout Barbara Auer portrays the empathetic wife of the village mayor, who becomes another surrogate parent of sorts, opening up her capacious library to Liesel.
The relationships in the story are varied, and in her experiences in the village and at school, Liesel confronts a full spectrum of humanity. One can take comfort in the story without buying it for a second. In the same way "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" exploited 9/11 for a fairy tale about geopolitical tragedy and one child's self-improvement, "The Book Thief" assaults the tear ducts while a child learns to endure and comes to know the healing power of great literature. Director Brian Percival lends the film a craftsmanlike sheen; the script by Michael Petroni clips along, never worrying much about psychological scars or what's happening just off screen. This is an empowerment fable, with all the queasy, ahistorical perspective the phrase implies.
"The Book Thief" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)
Running time: 2:11