Liesel Meminger (French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse) is sent to live with foster parents, the kind-hearted World War I veteran who has refused to join the Nazi Party Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his stern wife Rosa (Emily Watson). The little girl can’t read or write, but carries with her The Gravedigger’s Handbook, a book she “borrowed” after finding it on the ground at her brother’s funeral.
The unintelligible words in that book set Liesel on her path. Hans, who calls the girl “Your Majesty,” teaches her to read, igniting a love of words and storytelling that ultimately changes the life of a young Jewish man named Max and helps Liesel make sense of life in Nazi Germany.
Closer in tone to “A Beautiful Life” than “Schindler’s List,” “The Book Thief” is a touching, if somewhat melodramatic look at Liesel’s life. Jam-packed full of big moments, with kids forced to grow up too fast and confront the harsh realities of life, it’s a tearjerker that earns most of its schmaltzy, salty drops, but not all.
Based on the international best-selling novel by Markus Zusak and directed by Brian Percival of “Downton Abbey,” the film finds its main strength in the web of relationships that intertwine around Liesel. From tow headed neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch), who loves Liesel at first sight, to the instant connection between Hans and his new daughter, to the bond that forms between Max and the girl as she reads to him, these links (and performances) bring humanity to the story, preventing it from being overwhelmed by the film’s dramatic tendencies. I’m mean, the movie is narrated by Death (Roger Allam) and set, primarily on a street called Heaven. You just know this isn’t going to be subtle.
Some moments work very well.
Kristallnacht, set to a soundtrack of young, angelic voices singing anti-Semitic Hitler Youth songs while the soldiers attack Jewish citizens and destroy their homes and shops, is chilling.
Others feel over-the-top, no matter how deeply the camera focuses on Nélisse’s soulful blue saucer eyes. (MAJOR SPOILER!!!!!!!!) Rudy’s final moments almost play like a “Monty Python” sketch, regardless of how attached you have become to the character.
Luckily Rush is a lovely and touching presence. He’s terrific as Hans, a compassionate, light-hearted man who understands the gravity of the situation. Watson, as his wife, is a tough nut, but compassionate one, but it is Nélisse who is at the core of the film.
She hands in a delicate, natural performance that rarely succumbs to the film’s melodrama.
“The Book Thief” doesn’t always trust the story to work on its own, so it wedges in a few too many big moments—and one egregious bit of product placement—but when it relies on the performances, it works.