Critic’s Pick: ‘The Book Thief’

Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush in "The Book Thief"
Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush in "The Book Thief"

Must-See Movies Beyond the Blockbusters

Just when I thought I could never, would never weep at another Holocaust film, along comes the screen adaptation of "The Book Thief." Kleenex, stat!

The hefty 2005 novel is a YA superstar and high-school curriculum staple. It sold eight million copies worldwide and spent seven years on the New York Times bestseller list. It's been translated into 30 languages – and now steals onto film like "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."

"The Book Thief," which opens in 1939, follows a tough-nut tween named Liesel Meminger (13-year-old gymnast-turned-actress Sophie Nélisse). But don’t expect spoon-fed treacle, either from Leisel or the story itself: This is a coming-of-ager narrated by no less hefty a figure than Death and set in the era of Hitler.

In an early sequence, Liesel’s persecuted Communist mother drops her with working-class German foster parents: unemployed sign-painter Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and his crusty laundress wife, Rosa (Emily Watson). When Leisl won’t exit the car in suburban Munich, Hans creeps up with that colossal shaggy head of Rush’s and says gently, like talking a kitten out from under the bed, "Your Majesty." Liesel follows him into the story, and so does the audience, as Rush plays the kindly woodcutter to Watson’s shrewish stepmother in a child’s fairy tale set in reality hell.

[Related: 'The Book Thief' Cast on Nazi-era Tearjerker]

Illiterate when she arrives, with a slim volume pinched from a gravedigger at her younger brother's hasty funeral, Liesel gradually learns to read with Hans’ gentle tutoring, develops a friendship with a plummy blond neighbor, Rudy (Nico Liersch), and comes to write the lines of her own life even when all around her is disappearing to genocide and, ultimately, Allied bombs.

Screenwriter Michael Petroni’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s chunky novel sometimes has difficulty digesting it all in tidy lumps, but director Brian Percival uses skills honed on "Downton Abbey" to blend domestic soap opera and political upheaval. Hans and Rosa risk everything to harbor a bookish young Jew (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement as, on the street, the swastikas get more plentiful, Kristallnacht approaches, and it becomes less and less clear who they can trust.

[Related: 'The Book Thief:' Geoffrey Rush on The Novel]

Rush displays a shambling charm with hidden depths that deserves a Supporting Actor nomination, while a scrubbed Watson slowly uncovers the humanity in an unhappy housewife. Nelisse, a bilingual Montrealer who won acclaim for the Academy Award-nominated "Monsieur Lazhar," focuses the entire movie within the solemn gaze of her soulful eyes. It’s the kind of committed, old-soul-in-a-young-body performance that recalls Chloe Moretz in "Let Me In."

Even with all this, what elevates “The Book Thief” above Holocaust kitsch? It’s the perspective: seeing Liesel’s story unfold from the grave’s eye view of Death, watching and commenting on the quality of the souls he takes -- now a daughter, now a storm trooper -- in war’s dark feast. Yes, the Grim Reaper comes for us all, but the movie poses the follow-up question: What will Death witness when he sees our last breath?

Bottom Line: "The Book Thief" steals even the hardest heart.