Monday, November 11, 2013

The Book Thief

"The Book Thief," based on Markus Zusak's bestseller, takes us to Germany before and during WWII, where Rosa (Emily Watson) and Hans (Geoffrey Rush) await their two new foster children.

Only one arrives: pretty blonde Liesel (Sophie NĂ©lisse), whose brother has perished en route. Rosa runs the household with an iron fist, but director Brian Percival lets us know early on her heart is every bit as big as that of the doting and avuncular Hans. Liesel earns the nickname "book thief" by stealing one from the ashes of a book-burning and one from the library of the Nazi functionary whose laundry Rosa cleans. One day, Max, a Jew (Ben Schnetzer), shows up at their doorstep. Hans owes Max's late father a favor, and Max asks them to shelter him in their basement, where he teaches Liesel the power of words by having her paint word pictures of the outside world for him. 

For a movie with a literary theme, the words of "The Book Thief" are instantly forgettable, particularly those incanted jarringly by Roger Allam as Death, the narrator. The film is handsomely mounted, with some beautiful images of trains belching gray-black smoke across snow-white landscapes. That it works at all is testament to highly genial performances by NĂ©lisse, Watson, Rush, and Nico Liersch as Rudy, the tow-haired neighbor boy who instantly becomes Liesel's constant companion. Still, I could think of no more apt description than that with which Pauline Kael closed her brutally frank assessment of "Rain Man": "The picture has its effectiveness: people are crying at it. Of course they're crying at it - it's a piece of wet kitsch."

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