Liesel, a young girl, is sent to live with a foster family in World War II Germany and learns to read with encouragement from Max, a Jewish refugee who they are hiding under the stairs. For Liesel and Max, the power of words and imagination become the only escape from the tumultuous events happening around them.
Based on the bestselling novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief tells the tale of young German girl, Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), and begins in the mid-1930s, moving forward to the outbreak of WWII. Leisel and her young brother are given up for adoption because their mother – a communist – fears for their safety when the Nazis begin to clamp down on their opponents.
Liesel’s brother dies on the cross-country journey to refuge and, heartbroken, she is adopted by Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson). Nazi fever sweeps the small town in which Liesel finds herself and war is duly declared – bewildering and exciting for the town’s children. When her new parents offer shelter to a young Jewish man, Liesel is sworn to secrecy. To distract herself from the horrors of the war, and having been taught to read by the kindly Hans, she begins to steal books from the home of a local Nazi official – reading the stories to the family’s hidden basement guest: the threat of discovery a constant noose above all their heads.
Part of the reason Zusak’s original novel caught the imagination was that its narrator was Death itself – a constant stalker across the globe, never more so than in times of war. Director Brian Percival attempts to repeat the device here, but only semi-successfully, with Death’s introduction and conclusion to the tale, and the odd commentary throughout film. Apart from a climactic bombing raid, Death’s words (as recited by Roger Allam) are largely superfluous. In fact, in condensing the book for the screen, much of the action seems a little directionless. A moving tale, for sure, but despite the action that goes on around them, the characters appear to undergo little development or evolution: the significance of Liesel’s book stealing – like other elements of the story – woefully unexplained. In its favour are strong and engaging performances from its leads – particularly Rush and Watson. Sophie Nélisse proves an astounding discovery, upon whom so much of the movie rests, but even she can’t completely counteract a disappointing twee-ness creeping into this tale of wartime horror.