Review: The Book Thief

PLOT: In Germany during the Second World War, young Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), the daughter of a communist who’s on the run from the Nazis, is sent to live with a middle-aged couple- Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann- in their small town. There, the illiterate Liesel is taught to read by the kindly Hans, and she develops a passion for books, which is indulged by the town Burgermeister’ s wife. But, when Hans agrees to hide Jewish boy named Max (Ben Schnetzer), Liesel comes face-to-face with the grim reality of life under Hitler.

Review: THE BOOK THIEF is the kind of literate, thoughtful family movie that’s usually overlooked by studios that often get caught up trying to outdo themselves with CGI-animated spectacles rather then tell a story that will educate and inspire younger viewers. This is a throwback to a better kind of family film. With it boasting a cast headed by heavyweights Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, clearly the filmmakers behind THE BOOK THIEF are hoping for some awards consideration too. It’s no coincidence the ads boast, “from the studio that brought you LIFE OF PI.”

While it remains to be seen whether or not THE BOOK THIEF will catch on in a major way, whatever the case it’s a top-flight family film and an educational one to boot. Naturally, the Holocaust is a tricky subject for “family entertainment” but this is an exceedingly tasteful film that never downplays its horror, but also presents it in an easily relatable way that should strike a chord for thoughtful young viewers.

Based on the popular novel by Markus Zusak, the movie carries over the book’s rather eccentric way of telling its story- being told from the perspective of “death” (voiced here by Roger Allam). Far from a dark, scary figure, here death is a compassionate (and unseen) character, who takes in interest in young Liesel after claiming her brother. Being that this is Nazi Germany, death is never far from Liesel, and he observes her and her new family with great interest.

Chief among the film’s strengths is the brilliant cast. Watching it, I was sure I had seen young Sophie Nélisse somewhere before. To my surprise, she turned out to be a fellow Quebecois- having made a splash in Phillippe Farlardeau’s Oscar-nominated MONSIEUR LAZHAR. Nélisse is excellent, more or less carrying the entire film on her shoulders. As the young, book-loving Liesel, she manages to be both empathetic- in that she’s forced to grow up long before her time through witnessing the horrors of war- while maintaining a childish idealism, which never comes off as contrived or precocious. This is a performance that will put her on the map in a big way.

As her kindly guardian, we get the always great Geoffrey Rush, who manages to convey the compassion of a man that not only takes in the orphaned Liesel, but also hides a young Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) in his basement. He knowingly risks capture because it’s simply the right thing to do, and he owes a debt of honor to the boy’s deceased father. It feels like a part that’s tailor-made to Rush’s strengths, and her performance is excellent. If Rush is the kind one, as his tough, nagging wife, Emily Watson has the most complex part in the film. At first she seems shrewish, but Watson is able to convey the character’s essential goodness even if it conflicts with her cynical nature. All together, the three leads make for a convincing, likable on-screen family.

As the film goes on, and the situation in Nazi Germany grows more and more dire, the movie takes a dark, but ultimately hopeful turn. It’s the type of film that’s guaranteed to generate sobs from even the stiffest audience, and that’s all due to the innate likability of the cast. You WANT them to survive the war, and you WANT them to remain a family. Director Brian Percival is mostly known for directing episodes of DOWNTON ABBEY, and the lavish production values of that show have seemingly well-prepared him for features, with it featuring several striking set-pieces. The most effective of these is a local book burning, where the town’s Burgermeister whips his subjects into a frenzy, leading to a massive book burning, to the horror of the literature-loving Liesel .

Hopefully, THE BOOK THIEF doesn’t get lost in the holiday shuffle, as it’s an uncommonly sophisticated piece of family entertainment that could (and should) play to a broad audience. It’s a very well-made, affecting film, and reminiscent of the type of smart family films that used to be commonplace, but are now an endangered species. This one is highly recommended.

Review: The Book Thief




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.