The Book Thief: Film Review

Fine acting cannot entirely salvage this earnest, sometimes attenuated World War II survival story.

Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse star in director Brian Percival's adaptation of the Markus Zusak novel.

"From the studio that brought you Life of Pi!" declare the ads for the new 20th Century Fox literary adaptation of The Book Thief. Both of these movies are indeed rarities in today's marketplace; they are films for adults, adapted from best-selling novels with philosophical overtones, that are a long way from the comic book franchises more beloved of today's studio executives. The gamble on Life of Pi paid off in spades for Fox; the film not only won four Oscars but became an enormous worldwide financial success. Neither of those achievements will be duplicated by The Book Thief, but you still have to give the studio credit for going against the grain and gambling on the intelligence of the audience.

Life of Pi had a master filmmaker, Ang Lee, telling a big-screen adventure story, while The Book Thief has a journeyman director, Brian Percival (best known for his work on Downton Abbey) and an even more downbeat story of a group of Germans struggling to survive the horrors of the Second World War. Besides that, the new movie, like Markus Zusak's novel, is narrated by Death (urbanely voiced by British actor Roger Allam) -- not exactly the jolliest guide through a traumatic period of history. The narrator introduces us to our young heroine, Liesel (Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse, who made a strong impression in the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar) as she is being uprooted from her family and forced to live with foster parents in a distant part of Germany.

VIDEO: 'The Book Thief' Trailer Explores Power of Words and Family in Nazi Germany

Liesel is unhappy at first living with a middle-aged, childless couple. Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) is at least tenderhearted, but Rosa (Emily Watson) is bitter and grumpy. Eventually, however, Liesel finds friends in the town, and her existence becomes a lot more interesting when a young Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), takes shelter with the Hubermanns. He is the one who encourages her literary aspirations, giving her a diary to record her thoughts and observations. Liesel also begins a puppy-love affair with a neighbor boy, a runner who worships Olympic champion Jesse Owens, to the consternation of his Aryan neighbors.

The backdrop of the film is not the freshest, so it really depends on acting and filmmaking to bring one more Nazi-era story to life. Here the results are mixed. The actors give the film an enormous boost. Rush has played flamboyant and eccentric characters with panache, but here he proves equally adept at bringing an ordinary, decent man to moving life. Watson has the showier role, since crankiness is always more colorful than kindness, but she never allows Rosa to devolve into caricature. And when Rosa begins to thaw a bit and demonstrate the heart beneath her hard exterior, Watson illuminates the transformation without the slightest trace of sentimentality. Schnetzer and all the supporting actors are equally fine, but of course nothing would work without the performance of the actress cast as Liesel. Nelisse convinces us of her inner strength as well as her loneliness. Her face is a wonderfully eloquent instrument.

When it comes to the filmmaking, however, The Book Thief sometimes falls flat. Scenes dealing with Nazis searching for Jews in hiding should generate more suspense than Percival is able to muster. (Watch the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds to see what's missing here.) On the whole, the film unfolds too deliberately, without the needed sense of urgency and tension. Some of this may be attributable to the source material, an episodic tale without tremendous narrative drive. But the screenplay by Michael Petroni is overly expository, and Percival's pacing is too languid. The look of the film is undeniably impressive, with elegant cinematography by Florian Ballhaus and meticulous production design by Simon Elliott. John Williams' uncharacteristically understated score is one of his more effective in recent years.

You can't help comparing the film to other Nazi-era stories, such as The Diary of Anne Frank or the more recent literary adaptation The Reader. Both of those movies benefited from expert direction, and it may be that their stories were also more inherently dramatic and full of surprise than the tale invented by Zusak. There is much to admire in Percival's film version, but you may come away more impressed by the intentions than by the achievements.

Opens: Friday, Nov. 8 (20th Century Fox)

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Barbara Auer, Rainer Bock, Oliver Stokowski

Director: Brian Percival

Screenwriter: Michael Petroni

Based on the novel by: Markus Zusak

Producers: Karen Rosenfelt, Ken Blancato

Executive producer: Redmond Morris

Director of photography: Florian Ballhaus

Production designer: Simon Elliott

Music: John Williams

Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard

Editor: John Wilson

PG-13, 130 minutes