Death haunts every frame of Brian Percival’s wartime drama.
The Grim Reaper (voiced by Roger Allam) is the mellifluous narrator of this beautifully crafted story of courage and determination during the Second World War, based on the international bestseller of the same name by Markus Zusak.
Unseen until the final frames, the shadowy figure casts an unsentimental eye over characters in the midst of bitter and bloody conflict.
In particular, Death is haunted by a girl called Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nelisse).
As tensions escalate across Europe, Liesel bids a tearful farewell to her Communist mother (Heike Makatsch) and is delivered into the care of foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson).
With encouragement from Hans, Liesel learns to read and she develops a voracious appetite for books, which is sated in secret by the mayor’s wife Ilsa (Barbara Auer), who owns a vast library of texts, many of which would surely go up in flames at one of the Nazis’ book-burning ceremonies.
Liesel hides these visits from everyone, including her neighbour and good friend Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), who proudly enrols in the Hitler Youth movement.
One night, a Jewish refugee called Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer) arrives at the Hubermanns’ home and they offer him shelter in the basement, and Liesel becomes complicit in Max’s concealment.
However, when school bully Franz Deutscher (Levin Liam) overhears Liesel confessing her secret to Rudy, it seems that Max’s grim fate is sealed.
Intercut with Death’s words of wisdom, The Book Thief is a handsome and poignant drama that compels us to care about the spunky heroine as she risks her life to protect the people she loves from annihilation.
Nelisse is an endearing screen presence, whose innocence provides a glimmer of light during the darkness of the film’s tense and harrowing moments. She gels splendidly with Rush as the man of principle with a heart of gold, and Watson is imperious in opening scenes as an iron-fisted matriarch who, as Hans puts it, “isn’t as strong as she looks”.
Indeed, when the facade finally cracks, screenwriter Michael Petroni skilfully engineers one of the film’s most humorous and heart-warming moments by having Rosa whisper to her foster daughter: “Wipe that smile off your face and pretend I’m the witch you know I am!”
John Williams’s Oscar-nominated score resonates and is complemented by superb production design and costumes that evoke the turbulent period between 1938 and 1942.
Like Death, we too are haunted by Liesel and her incredible journey, which lingers in the memory long after the curtain falls on Percival’s impressive picture.