Whatever virtues turned “The Book Thief” into an acclaimed and honored international best-seller are strangely absent from the film adaptation. A sad orphan’s story bereft of emotion, a paean to books that does precious little to pass that on to the viewer, a Holocaust tale where the Holocaust has been sanitized and washed out of the story — it’s a flat exercise in re-creating a place and time but not really “getting” the point of it all.
Brian Percival, a veteran of the TV soap opera “Downton Abbey,” tips his hand early. Little Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is on her way to a new family with her younger brother. The brother dies, en route — and she, and we feel . . . nothing.
Since the tale is narrated, ironically by “Death” (Roger Allam), we wonder if that’s not perhaps the point.
“When the time comes,” Death says of his arrival, “don’t panic. It doesn’t seem to help.”
‘The Book Thief’
DIRECTED BY: Brian Percival
STARRING: Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch and Ben Schnetzer
RATED: PG-13 GRADE: C–
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes
“The Book Thief” is about Liesel’s life living in an unnamed small German city from 1938-45. She arrives, 11 years old and illiterate. Her kindly stepdad, Hans (Geoffrey Rush, at his twinkliest), an accordion-playing house painter and handyman, gently tricks “Your Majesty,” as he calls her, into learning to read. Her grumpy new stepmother Rosa (Emily Watson) tolerates this and not much else.
But neighbor boy Rudy (Nico Liersch) is smitten. And no amount of bullying, no number of brush-offs can keep him from Liesel’s side. They witness Germany’s slide into World War II together, from Kristallnacht to utter defeat, giving us a child’s-eye view of what they see.
Liesel’s past comes out and the Nazis show their true colors as Jews flee or are rounded up. A few chilling moments come from Liesel’s Hitler Youth uniform and their child anthems, about rejecting “non-Germanic” citizens and the book burning. The Nazis liked to burn books. Liesel, instinctively, sees this for the crime it is.
Percival, working from a Michael Petroni script of the Markus Zusak novel, finds fun in Liesel rescuing a book from a bonfire (smoke, wisping through her coat, alarming Hans). But Percival is at a loss about what to do with the Holocaust and a major character, Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew we see flee the country, yet somehow come back and require sheltering by Liesel’s new family.
While the portrait of everyday life — ordinary people expressing tiny, fearful kindnesses in the face of totalitarian bigotry and a nation being led to doom — is novel, Percival fails to stage scenes suggesting the popular support of Hitler with any conviction. He paces this like a TV soap opera; the kids never age, the sick and starving never look less than hale and healthy. The evil is remote and impersonal.
It’s too watered down for adults — lacking the satiric bite you might expect from a tale narrated by Death — and too grim for kids.
And everybody speaks a sort of old-fashioned Hollywood hybrid of German and English. “Gott im Himmel!”
Still, “The Book Thief” falls somewhere on the “Life is Sweet”/“Boy in the Striped Pajamas” scale of WWII tales, never exactly trivializing the war, the suffering and the Holocaust. Rush and Watson make strong impressions, but no one else does.