Starring Sophie Nelisse, Roger Allam, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson; directed by Brian Percival; 131 minutes; rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material, grade: B-
Elevated by some tender, smart performances and working within World War II Germany, "The Book Thief" offers eloquent portraits of the human spirit in awful times.
If it drifts toward corn and convenience toward the end while trying to avoid too many dark shades, well, it's not fully excusable, but it is understandable. This is harsh stuff, perhaps a bit too harsh for "Downton Abbey" director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni, adapting the popular novel by Markus Zusak.
Our narrator is Death (Roger Allam), which may have worked in the book but feels false on film. He introduces us to young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), a young girl abandoned by her mother when her younger brother dies. Liesel ends up with an older couple in a small German village in 1938, the kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and the grouchy Rosa (Emily Watson).
Uneducated, Liesel is coaxed out of her shell by Hans as he teaches her to read. She makes friends with a neighborhood boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and eventually becomes accepted in town, even joining the local Hitler Youth choir.
But things about the political climate bother Liesel. She loves books and is aghast when they are burned in the town square. After a Jewish family friend, Max (Ben Schnetzer), ends up hiding from the Nazis in the basement, Liesel realizes she hates Hitler. But standing up in any way is dangerous, for both her and her family.
Resolved to read anyway, and to read to the ailing Max to bolster his spirits, Liesel begins sneaking in and borrowing books from the private library of a woman who has befriended her. And the power of those books helps keep her and Max alive.
Rush and Watson are predictably superb as their characters evolve, but it's on young Nelisse to make the film work. She brings a sense of damaged innocence that sets the film's tone.
"The Book Thief" may not be perfect but it may steal your heart.
Tom Long, The Detroit News