The Grim Reaper proves an unwelcome narrator in well-intentioned adaptation of Markus Zusak's popular World War II novel
Death won’t stop talking in “The Book Thief.”
The narrative device, carried over from Markus Zusak’s popular novel, quickly wears out its welcome in the movie: Yes, the Grim Reaper had his hands full during Nazi Germany, but do we really need to hear his recurrent voice-over musings about death? It verges on creepy to hear middle-aged Death (voiced by British stage actor Roger Allam) explain how special he knew young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) was from the moment he first saw her.
Especially considering how family-friendly this well-intentioned survival story is meant to be.
Death comes knocking early in “The Book Thief,” when Liesel’s younger brother dies en route to their new foster parents’ home. Liesel’s mother has murky reasons for giving them up, although school kids later deride her as a communist.
In any event, Liesel is deposited with her new foster parents, the kindly Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and prickly Rosa (Emily Watson). Hans soon discovers that Liesel can’t read and that she has swiped the gravedigger’s manual because she would like to remedy the situation.
He sets about teaching her while friendly next-door neighbor Rudy (an impossibly Aryan-looking Nico Liersch, right) tries to draw her out of her shell amid escalating violence against Jews. Before long, there’s another, more covert, addition to their household: Max (Ben Schnetzer), the son of the Jewish man who saved Hans during World War I.
Liesel now has even more reason to be wary; if the wrong people found out who was hiding in their basement, the whole family would be in danger.
And to make matters worse, the family is barely scraping by on money Rosa earns from doing laundry when the burgermeister catches Liesel reading with his wife in their library and stops giving Rosa work.
The movie, rated PG-13, does a credible job depicting the escalating climate of fear in the town. It shows anti-Semitism and violence against Jews without getting overly lurid about it: There are scenes of smashing windows during Kristallnacht, a book burning in the square, and a forced march by Jews with yellow stars.
But there are also jaunty scenes of Liesel and young Rudy frolicking, Disney-esque music swelling, as they have their light-hearted tween moments. These moments do not mix well with Death’s voiceovers, which have a way of popping up again when you’ve nearly managed to forget about them.
There is no irony in “The Book Thief,” which gets its name for Liesel’s penchant for “borrowing” books, first from the unknown gravedigger and later the burgermeister’s wife. Over the course of the movie, Liesel also learns to find her voice through words, and, from her “Papa” Hans’ example, how to stand up for that which she believes. It's all very positive role-modeling for younger viewers old enough to handle a troubling period in European history.
Nelisse and better-known co-stars Rush and Watson all acquit themselves well in “The Book Thief,” and Schnetzer is compelling as the secret boarder in the Hubermann household. But it’s not clear how much appeal this well-intentioned tale will have beyond families with older kids and fans of Zusak’s novel, which was marketed in the U.S. to young adult readers.
Fox 2000 is marketing the movie adaptation as a survival tale on the order of “Life of Pi,” the wildly successful lit adaption about survival it released last year. But “Life of Pi” had fantastical elements and dazzling visual effects going for it; this movie, directed by “Downton Abbey” director Brian Percival, does not.
Teens and those older will likely roll their eyes at some of the YA elements in “The Book Thief.” Others will just wish that Death would shut up.