By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — It’s a Holocaust drama for kids, of all things, but it’s more in the mold of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas than Schindler’s List.
Set in Nazi Germany and told from a child’s perspective, The Book Thief is a filmization of the same-titled 2005 Young Adult international best-seller by Markus Zusak, an exploration of the horrors of Nazi Germany for a youthful PG-13 audience.
Wide-eyed Liesel Meminger, the title character, is played by Sophie Nelisse. When we first meet the 11-year-old, it is 1938 and she is on a train with her mother and sickly brother.
When her brother dies and her political-activist mother can no longer take care of her, Liesel is sent to the home of the Hubermans, her new foster parents, kindly housepainter Hans and stern homemaker/laundress Rosa, played by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
Hans cannot find much in the way of work, partially because of his staunch refusal to join “the Party” as the Nazis’ takeover lurches forward. And the Hubermans, living in fear on the ironically named Heaven Street, struggle to make ends meet, as do their neighbors in this poverty-stricken small town.
Meanwhile, Liesel, who cannot read, nonetheless comforts herself with books, some borrowed and some swiped, even as she witnesses Nazi book burnings.
Then World War II breaks out and the Hubermans shelter a Jewish refugee named Max, played by Ben Schnetzer, who lives surreptitiously in their modest basement.
Thus do the Hubermans and their makeshift household get to experience and outwit evil firsthand.
Rush and Watson, gloriously capable and dependable actors, breathe three-dimensional life into the Hubermans: their relationship is authentic and moving and naturally funny, and each player gets to reveal hidden depths.
And Nelisse — the young French-Canadian actress who won a Genie (the Canadian Oscar) for her performance in the French-Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar — is wonderfully expressive as the spirited heroine, carrying the film like an A-list star.
Brian Percival (A Boy Called Dad), a TV director best known for episodes of TV’s Downton Abbey, works from an intelligently adapted, empathetic script by Michael Petroni that maintains Liesel’s point-of-view and employs Death as a narrator, a device that seems precious at first but that ends up feeling right in a vehicle aimed squarely at youngsters.
Percival and Petroni keep their touching and tragic tale on the quiet side, but come up a bit short in the suspense department. Still, the characters remain engaging because they are so adroitly inhabited by the principal cast.
So we’ll read 3 stars out of 4 for The Book Thief, a gentle, literate family film that shines a bit of light on some of history’s darkest days.