Just because a bestselling novel is beloved across the globe, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will make for a great movie. "The Book Thief" is a courageous story of a little girl surviving the horrors of an impending war that works well enough in spite of an ending that can't help but lay on the melodrama just a little too thickly.
While subjected to the horrors of World War II Germany, the spirited and courageous young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) finds solace by stealing or 'borrowing' books and sharing them with others. Meanwhile under the stairs in her home, a Jewish refugee is being sheltered by her adoptive parents (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush).
It all works well enough as this adaptation of the novel by Markus Zusak unfolds in a reasonable enough fashion as screenwriter Michael Petroni keeps us engaged enough but it was missing something. It's perfectly serviceable and hits the right notes during the holiday awards season as director Brian Percival who has worked on several episodes of the hit TV show "Downton Abbey" certainly knows how to craft a period piece as the set design, costumes and art direction are all very meticulous and look simply fantastic. However that being said there are a lot of places where the material feels a little too sterile at times, relying on the visuals of war rather than fleshing out more of the supporting characters to make the drama and emotional trials of war hit home with us as an audience. It hits all the right notes but comes off as more obviously manipulative then it does as emotionally genuine, and that is no more obvious than in the last 15 minutes of film that degenerate into a maudlin mess that was so incredibly unnecessary from a storytelling standpoint that it almost soured me on the entire film. Thankfully there are some strong performances over all that keep the film on the right side of scale.
Sophie Nélisse, in only her third film ever is quickly becoming Canada's next great acting import. As Liesel she is a confident, self-assured and strong young woman who has to deal with and understand the horrors that are slowly unfolding around and as she becomes more aware and intelligent her anger grows and we grow with her. It's such an incredibly strong performance and it wouldn't shock me at all to see her name in contention around award season as her work in this film is simply that good. Geoffrey Rush was surprisingly strong as her adopted father and in what I believe may have been one of the first times he's ever worked with a child actor, he had great chemistry with Nélisse and it helped the overall tone of the film, while Emily Watson as her adopted mother and the rest of the ensemble was just a little too uneven.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray were top notch and the special features include an intimate making of called "A Hidden Truth: Bringing The Book Thief to Life" along with some deleted scenes.
Enough of "The Book Thief" works to make it worth the watch but you'll never be able to shake the obvious manipulations and overtones in the film that just make you feel like the filmmakers hit you over the head with a heavy message inside an ultimately sweet and life affirming story.
3 out of 5 stars.