“The Book Thief,” while not necessarily the greatest period piece, deserves credit for presenting its story in such an emotionally compelling way.
Directed by Brian Percival, who received an Emmy award for his work on the hit series “Downton Abbey,” the film is based on the Markus Zusak novel of the same name. “The Book Thief” follows the life of refugee Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) as narrated by Death (Roger Allam).
Set at the start of World War II, Liesel’s story begins on a train with the death of her brother Werner. Liesel and her mother disembark and bury Werner, and Liesel picks up a book dropped by one of the funeral workers: so begins Liesel’s illustrious career as a book thief.
The focus of the movie is partially on the interactions between Liesel and the Hubermanns, Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush). The family lives on Himmel Street, in a fictional German town called Molching. The setting is picturesque, but the town is marred by Nazi flags, book burnings, and the occasional forced march of Jews to concentration camps.
The strength of “The Book Thief” is found in its characters. Sympathy for characters such as Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), Liesel’s classmate, and Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew on the run, increases as the things the characters love the most are taken away from them. Liesel’s adoptive parents have their own idiosyncrasies that endear them to viewers.
The movie strays very little from the plot of the book, aside from a few tangential plot points that the move skips over. The movie does not struggle to create its own identity. It stays true to the world Zusak created in his story, and that is where it is strong. Scenes separate from the original novel, such as Liesel and Rudy near a river shouting “I hate Hitler!” together in a somewhat contrived manner, are where the movie falls short.
There are also a few parts of the movie that stand out as seeming somewhat out of place and romanticized. Take, for example, the deaths of certain characters: as the camera pans over their bodies, their corpses seem to be neat and tidy, without a blemish to be seen. These were the times when I felt like I was watching a musical adaptation.
“The Book Thief” does not strive to be anything more than its literary counterpart. For that, purists will be grateful. The simplicity of the movie is what makes it stand out. “The Book Thief” does exactly what it intends to do—no more, no less.