Given the fact that today’s movie audiences are primarily composed of those under the age of 25, it should come as no surprise that highly successful novels written for children and young adults such as The Hunger Games trilogy & The Harry Potter series often become the basis for commercially successful movies. Director Brian Percival, (much of Downton Abbey) extends that trend with this handsomely mounted presentation of Markus Zusak’s novel, which graced the best-seller lists for over 4 years following its publication in 2005. Adapted by screenwriter Michael Petroni, (TheChronicles of Narina) Thief traces the experiences of a young German girl named Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) growing up in a small German village during WW II.
Adopted by a childless couple (Geoffrey Rush & Emily Watson) when her own mother is imprisoned by the Nazis, Liesel’s adolescence serves as a microscopic examination of the war’s effects on working-class Germans of that era as seen through the eyes of a tough-minded girl undeterred by the challenges of her roughly altered circumstances.
When her adoptive parents hide a young Jewish man in their basement, Liesel becomes his protector, reading aloud to him during an extended illness and keeping his presence a secret from her inquisitive classmates at school. As the war drags on and she loses many of those who populate her small world, Liesel gains resilience from the deep emotional ties she develops within her little “family” and the solace she discovers in the books “borrowed” from the wife of the local mayor.
Nélisse, the appealing 13year-old French-Canadian actress who enlivened the heartbreaking Monsieur Lazhar two years ago, employs her gloriously deep blue eyes to perfect effect as she makes her journey to adulthood guided, by a sweetly affable father and sustained by the gruff strength of her mother, roles which provide Rush and Watson the opportunity of portraying archetypes rather than unique characters – but that’s to be expected in a film that seeks above all to reflect on the human potential for endurance in the face of unimaginable suffering and death. That The Book Thief bites off a theme too big for its screenplay to adequately chew doesn’t detract from the warmth of the leads’ performances or the startlingly effective use of a voice-over narrative, which grows more compelling as the movie reaches its uncomfortably sentimental conclusion.
Despite handsome production values and a score by the much-acclaimed John Williams, there’s an air of detachment in Thief’s unfolding that makes it more morality tale than incisive drama and some of the pivotal scenes run on too long, as if to impress the audience with the depth of the film’s subject matter by lengthening its running time.
The Verdict? A highly successful novel makes a partially successful transition to the big screen, enlivened by the sparkling performance of its appealing ingénue.
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