The Book Thief is a handsomely mounted but strangely pitched adaptation of Markus Zusak's 2005 novel about a young girl in Nazi Germany. The accents grate. Dialogue here is delivered in English but with a Germanic twang and a few German words ("nein!") thrown into the mix. Much of the material is very dark indeed but even against the backcloth of the Holocaust, the film plays like a typical coming-of-age story.
Our narrator is Death himself, voiced by the well-spoken (and non-Germanic) Roger Allam. He is looking down from above the clouds on the trials of the young protagonists. Sophie Nélisse is very impressive as the youthful heroine Liesel Meminger, who at the beginning of the film loses her beloved brother and is given up to impoverished foster parents (Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush).
Nélisse brings both a cutesy quality (reminiscent of Millie Perkins in The Diary of Anne Frank) and a toughness to her role as the book-loving child bemused by the violence around her. Watson clucks and scolds as her stepmother, sometimes coming close to caricature as she frets over the laundry or twists little Liesel's ear, but ultimately giving the character an emotional depth. Rush is effective, too, as the accordion-playing, kind-hearted stepdad who takes in a Jewish refugee as part of a pledge he made to an old soldier colleague.
The film-making style seems disconcertingly glossy given the downbeat themes. There is picturesque imagery of steam-belching trains crossing snowy landscapes and of kids playing in the streets. We see beatific- looking children singing in school choirs even as Nazis are smashing windows and burning books in the streets nearby. The swirling John Williams score and unabashed sentimentality don't help a film that would surely have benefitted from taking a tougher approach.