“The Book Thief” has its moments of brilliance, thanks in large part to an adept cast. But the movie about a girl adopted by a German couple during World War II also crystallizes the perils of book adaptations. Based on a bestselling novel, the movie tries heartily to contain writer Markus Zusak’s myriad plot points, but the result is a rushed conclusion, which tempers the intended tear-jerking climax.
The sticky-fingered title character is Liesel. With bouncy blond hair and big, sad eyes, actress Sophie Nélisse utterly embodies the character of a girl given up for adoption shortly after her brother dies. When Liesel’s on-the-run Communist mother can no longer care for her, she’s taken in by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). The child immediately bonds with her new father, a smiling accordion player who calls Liesel “your majesty.” Rosa is more standoffish and looks constantly for excuses to yell. (She finds many.)
Despite her tendency to pick up lost books, Liesel can’t read or write, and that momentarily makes her a punch line at school. One bully learns quickly, though, that although Liesel can’t spell, she can fight, and that’s just the first hint of her tenacious personality.
After Hans teaches her to read, Liesel’s world begins to expand, both through stories from books she sneakily “borrows” and in a reality that’s informed by an oppressive regime. In this small German village, she finds reasons to be optimistic thanks to a friendship with another youngster, Rudy (Nico Liersch), but she also comes to understand the saddest repercussion of Third Reich rule after a man named Max comes to the family’s door one night. The son of Hans’ old friend, Max is Jewish and on the run, and he ends up hiding in the family’s basement.
There is plenty here to create both an emotional payoff and a healthy dose of suspense. But director Brian Percival’s film squanders the opportunities by squeezing a number of other subplots into the two-hour run time. These threads have the space to breathe and evolve in a novel, but when it comes to the film, less would have been more.
That being said, “The Book Thief” has its pleasures. Along with a memorable performance from Nélisse, Rush and Watson prove their impressive range. Despite the film’s dark themes, there are a number of scenes of gentle comedy, and those come mostly thanks to Rush’s and Watson’s facial expressions and delivery. Ben Schnetzer, who plays Max, hasn’t acted in many films, but his performance is indelible as an older brother figure trying to protect his young friend from the sad realities of the day.
From the pristinely shot scenes of a train chugging through a snowy landscape that open the film, “The Book Thief” has a sleekness to it. That feeling is mirrored in a plot that feels whitewashed in some ways. For example, Rosa discusses cutting back on meals now that the family has to provide for its refugee, but there aren’t depictions of hunger or suffering.
Just as Max tempers the reality for Liesel, the movie does the same for its viewers. That ensures a PG-13 rating and a broader audience, of course. But when the delivery is blunted, the audience’s emotions will tend to follow suit.