Trying to soft-pedal the Third Reich for a young-adult audience is a fool’s errand, and the drama “The Book Thief” only intermittently finds moments of hope in a dark period of human history.
Based on Markus Zusak’s book, the movie centers on Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), an orphaned German girl adopted by an older couple, kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and stern Rosa (Emily Watson). Though schooled to be a good German, Liesel becomes fascinated with forbidden books and is allowed into the secret library of the burgermeister’s wife (Barbara Auer). Another secret lies in Hans and Rosa’s basement, where they shelter Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew and the son of the man who saved Hans’ life in World War I.
Director Brian Percival, an Emmy winner for “Downton Abbey,” allows the movie to veer into fanciful pretentiousness, like the smarmy voice-over narration by Death (voiced by Roger Allam) that suffocates the movie’s final 30 minutes.
But when Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni keep the focus on the smaller moments, particularly Liesel’s friendship with Max and her growing trust in her foster parents, “The Book Thief” manages to be quite touching.
‘The Book Thief’
Opens today at area theaters; rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material; 131 minutes.