It had to happen: There’s so much voiceover narration in today’s movies that it was only a matter of time before somebody made a picture narrated by that life of the party himself, Death. The Grim Reaper delivers the opening monologue of The Book Thief, Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel about a somber, precocious schoolgirl in Nazi Germany. It’s 1938 and young Liesel (played by French newcomer Sophie Nélisse), for reasons that aren’t immediately spelled out, has been dispatched to a small German town to live with a new family, twinkling Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and scowling Rosa (Emily Watson). Liesel’s problems mount when she starts school: Her teacher and classmates learn, to her shame, that she can’t read. But with the help of good-natured Hans, Liesel soon discovers the power of words. She also forges one of those sweet kiddie romances with a neighbor boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who, with his spun-gold hair and Teutonic features, would make a fine Hitler Youth in training, though he’s a good kid and has no such ambitions. Still, the two are caught up in their times: Their school uniforms are decorated with swastikas, and they join their schoolmates in singing nationalistic anthems. Books have become dangerous objects, but it’s too late for word-loving Liesel to turn back; she loves them too much, and so she must resort to illicit means to get them. Nélisse makes a good heroine, with her arresting face and watchful eyes. But The Book Thief is just too tidy to have much impact. Late in the movie, the kids stand at the edge of a river, shouting, “I hate Hitler!” into oblivion. Take that, Führer!
Brian PercivalGeoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch, Joachim Paul Assböck, Kirsten Block, Sandra Nedeleff, Ludger Bökelmann, Rafael GareisenMichael Petroni, Markus ZusakKen Blancato, Karen Rosenfelt20th Century Fox