Another week, another adaptation big-screen adaptation of a best-selling novel. This time it's Markus Zusak's 2006 young-adult tome "The Book Thief."
Narrated by Death and set in Nazi-era Germany, the tale follows young Liesel (played by Sophie Sophie Nélisse) as she's taken in by foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) following the death of her brother. Liesel begins stealing and sharing books, eventually learning to read with the help of new father Hans, and with the encouragement of a young Jew hiding in the family's basement.
With the film opening Friday, we look at what the critics have to say about director Brian Percival's adaptation.
"Liesel (Sophie Nélisse) is entrusted by her Communist-sympathizing mother to a pair of German foster parents, Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson), who soon take in another visitor: Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew whose father saved Hans' life during World War I. Initially illiterate, Liesel enjoys hearing new words, and is confounded by the book burnings that take place in town. She'll soon learn more complex lessons, as she starts to understand why her guardians are hiding Max in the basement, and why she can't tell that secret to anyone — even her friend Rudy (Nico Liersch), who's stoked the ire of local Nazi party members for idolizing Jesse Owens." — Ben Kenigsberg, A.V. Club
"The actors give the film an enormous boost. Rush has played flamboyant and eccentric characters with panache, but here he proves equally adept at bringing an ordinary, decent man to moving life. Watson has the showier role, since crankiness is always more colorful than kindness, but she never allows Rosa to devolve into caricature. And when Rosa begins to thaw a bit and demonstrate the heart beneath her hard exterior, Watson illuminates the transformation without the slightest trace of sentimentality. Schnetzer and all the supporting actors are equally fine, but of course nothing would work without the performance of the actress cast as Liesel. Nelisse convinces us of her inner strength as well as her loneliness. Her face is a wonderfully eloquent instrument." — Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter
"There are modest setpieces: an air-raid, a worrying house-by-house search by Nazi officials, Max's second serious illness, and Liesel's hysterical response when Jewish prisoners are marched through town. But 'The Book Thief' spans these wartime years from a microcosmic vantage point, seldom straying far beyond the main characters' ironically named 'Heaven Street.' It's to the credit of Percival (best known for helming several 'Downton Abbey' episodes) and Petroni ('The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,' 'Possession') that they refuse to artificially inflate the story's key points for melodramatic or tear-jerking purposes. By the same token, such intelligent restraint may strike some as too even-tempered and slow-paced, touching our emotions without heightening them in the way that often gets more attention come Oscar time." — Dennis Harvey, Variety
"Despite the heavy subject matter, we are still experiencing the story through the eyes of a child. The film avoids strict melodrama, building to an emotionally resonant crescendo (with the help of a remarkable score by the legendary John Williams). The audience is spared a non-stop tearjerker, but Amour is the last time I was in a screening where you could palpably feel that every person in the room was sobbing in unison. With its muted cinematography and a fairly slow-paced story, 'The Book Thief' isn't the flashiest of potential awards contenders this year, but it's one of the most genuine." — Matt Shiverdecker, Paste
The Final Word
" 'The Book Thief' would also have been better off without a self-congratulatory coda set in present-day Manhattan. But overall, it's engaging and serves its young audience well — a rare Holocaust movie that doesn't strain to become Oscar bait." — Lou Lumenick, New York Post