A sentimental period piece set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is also perhaps a little too pretty and overly simplistic for a Holocaust film. And yet, it's likely to be a big hit during the busy holiday release schedule, which picks up dramatically this week. Based on the popular book by Markus Zusak, this film will have a built-in audience, but it's not without its shortcomings.
One of the film's flaws is that it retains the book's narrator, Death. Voiced by Roger Allam, Death is an extraneous character that appears at the film's beginning and then essentially disappears until the end. While his role was essential in the book, he gets in the way of the story here.
The film centers on young orphan Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) and the trials and tribulations that she endures with her surrogate parents Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush). When we first meet Liesel, she's watched her brother die and been abandoned by her mother. Alone in a scary world, she doesn't even how to read. She doesn't get a particularly warm reception from Rosa and Hans, who expected to adopt both her and her brother.
But with the able assistance of good-natured Hans, who helps her build her vocabularly by writing the new words she learns on the basement walls, she picks up reading rather quickly and soon becomes a veritable bookworm. After the family takes in Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish friend of the family hiding from the Nazis, Liesel sustains him by reading out loud. It's a touching moment in a film full of touching moments.
Despite its tendency to sugar coat the atrocities of war, the film isn't without its tragic moments, some of which are delivered with a real tug to the heart. Nazi guards are a constant threat, adding suspense to the storyline.
When the movie succeeds, it's largely due to the strong cast. Rush and Watson turn in solid, strong performances and wide-eyed newcomer Nelisse is fantastic as young Liesel.