Director Brian Percival, known for directing six episodes of Downton Abbey, turns a World War II Holocaust story into a kind of fairy tale that also wants to celebrate the power of the written word.
This resultant tone -- radically misguided, I think -- turns The Book Thief into a preposterously sanitized portrait of hardship and war, all built around an achingly pretentious gimmick: The story is narrated by Death (the off-screen voice of actor Roger Allam).
Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) provides the story with its center. Liesel's mother, a leftist threatened by the rise of Nazism, allows her daughter to be adopted by a German couple: Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Rush's character is a kindly older man who soon begins teaching Liesel how to read; Watson's Rosa is a gruff woman whose good heart gradually is exposed.
Liesel's best friend is Rudy (Nico Liersch), a boy who looks as if he could serve as a poster child for Aryan supremacy, but who is good-natured, loyal and infectiously likable.
A pivotal plot twist kicks in when Hans and Rosa decide to hide a young Jewish man named Max (Ben Schnetzer) from the Nazis. Hans feels he must give Max shelter because the boy's father saved Hans's life during World War I.
As Liesel becomes an increasingly voracious reader, the movie seems to be proclaiming the saving power of words, the transcendental elevation that literature often promises. Needless to say (but I'll say it anyway) no words saved the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and who received little support from their neighbors. Of course, that's not the stuff of fairy tales.)
Steeped in faux German accents and making haphazard use of subtitles, The Book Thief has an accomplished enough look, but still stands as a big-screen misstep. To buy into this movie, you have to believe that it's possible for people to be in a building that suffers a direct hit by Allied bombs, and, moments later, be displayed in the streets, their dead bodies totally unmutilated.
I can't say that The Book Thief represents a case of good intentions that simply didn't pan out; for the life of me, I couldn't figure out exactly what the movie's intentions were.
Perhaps The Book Thief worked as a novel; as a movie, it tends to be as guileless as a grade-school primer -- and no more revealing.
The Book Thief occasionally has its English-speaking cast spouting a few German words. I'll add to the multi-lingual babble by saying, "Nein." "Nein." And, "nein" again.