‘The Book Thief’ is hampered by narrative device that lifted novel

Sophie Nélisse and Nico Liersch in ‘The Book Thief.’ PG-13, 131 min. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., 2013.

While the dark and bizarre narrative device of “The Book Thief” may have worked brilliantly in the form of a novel (the story-teller is Death himself), it makes the structure of the film version awkward and keeps emotions at arms-length. The movie’s saving grace is its top-shelf acting, including a breakthrough performance by radiant young actress Sophie Nélisse, who plays the title character of Liesel.

In Germany at the start of WWII, Liesel is adopted by Hans (the always-strong Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (a harsh yet touching Emily Watson), who eventually hide a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement. The new family bonds over reading stolen and banned books, as they learn difficult lessons about life, love and loss.

Directed with a heavily melodramatic hand by Brian Percival, “The Book Thief” never passes up an opportunity to show its characters suffering as a Nazi flag waves in the background. The violence of war coming to your own home is still shocking today, but the universal message about hope and sacrifice that novelist Markus Zusak conveyed gets tangled up in forced film clichés.

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