Certainly the prettiest look at World War II Germany on screen in a long time (those Nazis just seem a little cranky), “The Book Thief” seems to occupy a strange, lonely middle ground. The young readers who loved Markus Zusak’s novel for its narrative complexity and tough-mindedness will find little of that here; the movie, adapted by Michael Petroni, smooths down those edges. It’s as if the film has been made safe and nonthreatening — but who wants to attend a slow-paced, two-hour-plus war movie?
Directed by “Downton Abbey” regular Brian Percival (which might explain the prettiness), “The Book Thief” is the story of young Liesel (Sophie Nelisse), sent to live with foster parents in a small German town: kind Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and prickly Rosa (Emily Watson). Unhappy and struggling to adjust, she turns to books as an escape.
It’s the late 1930s, and Nazis are making their presence felt. But everything, down to Liesel’s perfectly styled starlet hair, feels movie-ish; you practically expect the von Trapp family to turn up and warble a song.
The movie’s far from unwatchable: Rush is utterly charming as Liesel’s beloved “Papa”; Watson’s Rosa is bracingly not-charming but lets us see this woman quietly falling in love with the child she brusquely cares for; and the message of books as a savior for the soul is always a welcome one. You just wonder if this film’s audience might be happier at home, curled up with a book. “The Book Thief,” perhaps.