Susan Granger’s review of “The Book Thief” (20th Century Fox)
Narrated by Death and told from a child’s perspective in small, German village during the Third Reich, this coming-of-age tale revolves around Liesel Meminger, an adolescent in whom the omniscient Grim Reaper (voiced by Roger Allam) has taken a particular interest.
In 1939, after the death of her mother and brother, orphaned Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is deposited on the doorstep of her new Teutonic foster parents, benevolent housepainter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his cranky wife Rosa (Emily Watson). Playing on the cobblestones of Himmel Street (translated as “Heaven”), Liesel is quickly befriended by their Aryan blond neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), an aspiring track star. When it’s discovered at school that Liesel is illiterate and she’s ridiculed by the class bully Franz (Levin Liam), Hans tenderly teaches her to read, beginning with “The Gravedigger’s Handbook,” which she grabbed when it fell from a workman’s coat at her brother’s funeral. Later, when she defiantly snatches a burning book from a bonfire at a local Nazi rally, she’s spotted by the Burgermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), who invites her into her late son’s library when Liesel delivers laundry. Meanwhile, the Hubermann household is secretly harboring Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the seriously ill, twentysomething son of Hans’s Jewish comrade who saved his life during WW I.
Adapted from Markus Zusak’s lyrical 2006 best-seller by screenwriter Michael Petroni (“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”) and director Brian Percival “(Downton Abbey”), it’s far too episodic and restrained to evoke more than superficial emotional involvement in the characters, despite the horror of the Holocaust, Allied air raids, Florian Balhaus’ sumptuous photography and John Williams’ evocative score.
Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”) deliver thoughtful, understated performances. Ben Schnetzer is charming, while Sophie Nelisse, a wholesome French-Canadian, is competent but hardly compelling.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Book Thief” is a schmaltzy 6, a gently engaging, well- crafted, historical melodrama that lacks the magical realism of Zusak’s novel.