Markus Zusak’s international best-selling novel is a natural
for the screen, yet a filmmaker could easily allow it to drown in sentimentality
or fall back on familiar tropes about victims of Nazi oppression during World
War II. Fortunately, Michael Petroni’s adaptation avoids these pitfalls, disarming
us with a liberal dose of humor, while director Brian Percival (best known for
his piloting of Downton Abbey)
exercises restraint in telling this highly emotional story, with the help of an
excellent cast. The result is a highly satisfying film that earns the right to
be called a tearjerker.
It will come as no surprise that Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are ideal as the German couple who take in an adolescent girl when her own mother can no longer care for her. After all, they are two of the finest actors alive: his character is warm and loving while hers is tough and aloof, at least on the outside. The revelation here is the young actress who portrays the wide-eyed girl named Liesel. Sophie Nélisse is mature beyond her years, mastering not only a German accent but the ability to convey a wide range of emotions on her expressive face. She was notable in the French-Canadian film Monsieur Lazhar, but she’s outstanding here.
Much of the power of Zusak’s book is captured in the film’s opening moments when we realize that the story is being narrated by Death himself (voiced by British actor Roger Allam). It’s a haunting and unusual perspective, especially for a tale that takes place during World War II, and it’s eerily effective.
The innocence of a child’s-eye view is also conveyed quite nicely as we experience a variety of sobering events—from a mass book-burning to the hiding of a Jewish fugitive—from Liesel’s point of view.
The Book Thief treads on familiar ground, to be sure, but it never seems shopworn. The situations are realistic, the moral choices genuine, and the emotions honestly portrayed, with Death itself having the final word. I found it extremely moving.