"The Book Thief," adapted from Markus Zusak's best-selling novel, is a well-meaning re-telling of the oft-told tale: the Holocaust was a time of unimaginable horror, but even during the worst moments of man's inhumanity to man, there were good people around who adopted the children of Communists and sheltered Jews in their basements.
Anyway, that's what kindly Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his cranky-but-with-an-eventually-revealed-heart-of-gold wife Rosa (Emily Watson) do. Their ward, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) arrives at their home illiterate, and Hans not only teaches her to read, but turns their basement walls into blackboards covered with words from their studies. The basement eventually also houses sickly Max Vandenburg (Pierre Clementi lookalike Ben Schnetzer), the son of a man who saved Hans' life during the first World War. Liesel crushes on the dark beauty (who wouldn't?), while a classically Aryan-looking classmate, blond Rudy, (Nico Liersch) pursues her relentlessly, in obsessive puppy love.
Despite the constant presence of death, literally and figuratively (the film is narrated by a plummy, English-accented, rueful yet implacable death, voiced by Roger Allam), the dangers of the time seem oddly muted. Regular opportunities for frissons appear: will the Nazis discover Vandenburg's hiding place while checking the basements of the town's houses? Will the school bully (Levin Liam) also learn the secret? Will the town's implacable Burgermeister trap Liesl in his library where she regularly steals -- well, borrows -- books to read to Max when he's lying near death? Will Hans, conscripted in middle age, return from the war? Will the bombs regularly being dropped on the town by English and American pilots find their targets?
Terrible things happen, and yet something about the film seems oddly muted. It's well-acted, well-directed by Brian Percival, Emmy and multiple BAFTA winner for "Downton Abbey," sincere in its purpose, and, as Variety used to say, all tech credits are pro. Florian Ballhaus' cinematography is warm and caressing. The Hubermann's home is cozy and gemutlich and, even though they complain of privations, there's always a slice of cake set out on nicely-patterned crockery and a cup of tea. The Burgermeister's magical library is a masterpiece of distracting art nouveau set design. Best special effect: aging Sophie Melisse, several times, by not much more than changing her hair style.
It was a surprise to see John Williams' name in the after-credits, having thought he was on permanent retainer to one S. Spielberg. At the premiere screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we were told that a week's mixing remained to be done on the movie, but these ears detected no problems.
"The Book Thief" is like a gateway Holocaust movie: preparation for stronger meat, like "Schindler's List" or "The Pianist." Liesel Menninger is something of an Anne Frank who lives and publishes her own best-selling novels. Experiencing -- and surviving -- the Holocaust could be seen, in the most cynical of terms, as a good career move.
"The Book Thief" hits theaters November 8. Review excerpt from Variety is below: