"The Book Thief" Review: Craig's First Take

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While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, young Liesel finds solace by stealing books and sharing them with others. Under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents.
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For a movie narrated by death, “The Book Thief” is pretty heartwarming stuff. It comes across as one of those movies begging for the Oscars to take notice, which they probably won’t, but that’s not to say the movie doesn’t have enough to recommend it otherwise.

It’s based on the novel of the same name by Markus Zusack. Leisel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse) has lost her younger brother and been abandoned by her mother, who is running from Nazi persecution for being a communist. Leisel finds herself on the doorstep of Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann, two kindly people who have agreed to take her in. The transition is hard, particularly in school where she is teased for being illiterate, but the good-natured Hans agrees to teach her.

As the pro-Hitler sentiment continues to grow, Jewish shops are destroyed, children are taught anti-Jewish songs in school, and books classified as intellectual dirt (such as H.G Wells) are burned. Liesel, who has grown quite fond of books, soon finds herself wandering the shelves of a huge library of one of the women her mother washes clothes for. She also meets Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew who the Huberman’s eventually offer safe harbor. She steals books to read to him, he teaches her the power of words.

You can tell director Brian Percival and screenwriter Michael Petroni are trying to make you reach for a hankie, especially in the much more melodramatic second-half, but it never really gets there. John Williams musical score soars but this remains a pretty workman-like tale of the hardships people face during war, seemingly cleaned up a lot for younger adult viewers. The brutality is fairly minor, while the questions it asks are familiar and have been told better in other films. As for the power of books? Well they never rise above "nice distraction" here.

What makes it work then are the performances, especially from Nelisse, who anchors the whole thing as this innocent young girl trying to understand the strange new world around her. This performance could actually get a nomination. And Rush, as the playful Hans, and Watson, as his nagging, more outspoken wife, are funny together and work well as this sweet, generous couple.

“The Book Thief” never really felt powerful to me, but this cast does a terrific job of making us care nonetheless.

On the Younkin Scale: 6 out of 10