Markus Zusak’s international bestseller “The Book Thief” has been brought to the screen with quiet effectiveness and scrupulous taste by director Brian Percival and writer Michael Petroni. This tale of Nazi Germany seen from a child’s perspective translates into solidly engaging drama, albeit one that may not be starry, flashy or epic enough to muscle its way into the front ranks of awards-season contenders. Bolstered by the novel’s fans, the Fox release (which opens limited Nov. 8) should ride solid reviews and word of mouth to midlevel prestige returns in line with such comparable medium-scaled WWII dramas as “The Reader” and “The Pianist.”
Petroni streamlines or eliminates some peripheral characters and subplots without compromising the book’s essence. Like its source, the film is narrated by Death (voiced by Roger Allam), who says at the start that he seldom bothers with the living, but took a particular interest in young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse). Liesel is first seen on a train in 1938 with her mother and brother, en route to a destination that her sickly sibling never makes it to. Neither does her mother, who may be headed to prison due to her communist leanings, it’s later rumored. So Liesel arrives alone at the doorstep of her new foster parents, housepainter Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his endlessly henpecking wife, Rosa (Emily Watson).
When it emerges that Liesel is illiterate — inviting immediate ridicule from school bully Franz (Levin Liam) — kindly Hans makes a game of teaching her to read. The first tome they conquer is one she’d grabbed when it fell from a laborer’s coat at her brother’s funeral: “The Gravedigger’s Handbook.” Later she dares rescue a burning book from a bonfire of “decadent” works at a Nazi rally. This act attracts the lone notice of the local Buergermeister’s wife, Frau Hermann (Barbara Auer), who later clandestinely lets Liesel use her late son’s personal library during her weekly laundry deliveries to that imposing mansion.
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In contrast, the Hubermanns barely scrape along on Rosa’s laundering and little else; we eventually deduce that Hans’ perpetual underemployment is due to his refusal to join “the Party.” As time passes and wartime privations grow worse, their domestic situation turns downright dangerous with the arrival of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), the fugitive son of a Jewish comrade who saved Hans’ life during WWI. Honor-bound to hide the young man from the authorities, they nurse him back to health, and he bonds with the fascinated Liesel. She’s sworn to tell no one of his presence, not even best-friend neighbor Rudy (Nico Liersch), though several times the secret comes fearfully close to exposure.
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.
Rush generously provides the movie’s primary warmth and humor; Watson is pitch-perfect as a seemingly humorless scold with a well-buried soft side. Hitherto little-noticed New Yorker Schnetzer is a real find, making Max a thoroughly ingratiating figure. French-Canadian Nelisse (“Monsieur Lazhar”) doesn’t come across as the most expressive of junior thesps here, but she looks right and does a competent job.
Impeccable design contributions are highlighted by Florian Ballhaus’ somber but handsome widescreen lensing, and an excellent score by John Williams that reps his first feature work for a director other than Steven Spielberg in years. One slightly distracting element is the use of “Ja” and “Da” in otherwise English (but German-accented) dialogue, apart from a few public speeches that deploy subtitled German. The print screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival lacked complete final credits (the ultimate running time will be longer than listed here), and was also short a few (unnoticeable) final-mix tweaks.