THE BOOK THIEF (PG-13)
A HEART STEALING FILM
Sophie Nelisse steals the screen in “The Book Thief” that is based on a 2005 bestselling book by Markus Zusak. The film opens with the voice of death (narrated throughout by Roger Allam), referring to a time in history when he claimed many lives. The story begins in pre-World War II Germany, when Liesel Meminger and her brother are given up for adoption when their birth mother can no longer afford to keep them. They are sent across the country to be taken in by foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Liesel arrives alone after her brother dies on the journey and is emotionally reeling from the tragic events of her life. Her foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) respond differently to her appearance, but it is Hans who builds an immediate rapport with the little girl.
Liesel is immediately dispatched to her new school where she is taunted by the other students because she cannot read. When Hans discovers this he sensitively invites her into the world of the written word, and this becomes her life preserver and impetus for living. She is befriended by a neighborhood boy, Rudy who is impressed by her newly arrived bravado and the two quickly become friends. The plot does not begin to gain momentum until a Jewish fugitive arrives under the cover of night seeking refuge in the Hubermann’s house. On the night of the Kristallnacht (a national Nazi book-burning) Liesel steals a stray book and is seen by the mayor’s wife who later befriends the girl giving her access to their private library. When the fledgling bond between them is cut off by the bϋrgermeister (mayor), Liesel resorts to stealing books from their library – thus the story’s title.
Thirteen year-old actor Sophie Nelisse was captivating as an already world-weary Liesel whose experiences have taught her the harsher realities of life. She desperately tries to hold on to every thread of human love and friendship she finds. This young actor had an enormous magnetic gaze that became a window to the inner sufferings of her character’s life, and her fleeting moments of triumph. The story takes on warmer tones when a relationship is developed between Liesel and Hans, and later with Max their Jewish hideaway (played by Ben Schnetzer). Geoffrey Rush, (The King’s Speech) captured the role of Hans with finesse and old world charm. Rush (always a screen treat) under-acted the part just so, reminding us that in certain performances - a little goes a long way. The multi-talented Emily Watson (Warhorse) played the toughened matriarch of the home who initially scoffs at the relationship between her husband and their adopted daughter. Watson takes us on Rosa’s journey by degree allowing us to see the evolvement of her character in surprising ways.
The film was slow at times and heart-wrenching at others but kept you engaged to see how Liesel’s adventure unfolds. Composer, John Williams made a rare departure from the “Spielberg universe” to provide an expressive musical score as the backdrop. Brian Percival a director of such successes as “Downtown Abbey” and “North & South” directed this work; that explains why the film had a “made for television” feel to it. This was not detrimental since it is still a graceful and compellingly told story of how one courageous girl’s love of literature makes a difference in the lives of those around her.
If you crave an off-the-beaten track movie in the middle of the Christmas blockbuster season - one that makes you alternately smile and shed a few tears, then “The Book Thief” is sure to steal a piece of your heart. But don’t forget to bring a box of Kleenex to the show and maybe a hand to hold – you’ll need it.
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