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‘Book Thief’ proves underwhelming, at best

Movie: The Book Thief; Director: Brian Percival; Studio: 20th Century Fox; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.

“The Book Thief,” adapted from the novel by Markus Zusak, presents an unusual viewpoint for experiencing the atrocity of World War II.

Instead of the familiar view from the perspective of either the war zone or lives torn apart by the harsh regime of Hitler and the Nazis, we get to see the war on Heaven Street in a provincial German town where wide-eyed, innocent Liesel (Canadian actress Sophie Nelisse) lives. And, to be frank, the perspective removes so much of the horror of the period that Nazis seem about as threatening as the local school bully.

And that’s where the movie fails. It also fails in that its 131-minute runtime feels much longer and left me itching for the movie’s end.

But it didn’t have to be this way. The first third and a good part of the middle of the film showed excellent prospects.

Opening to the voice of disembodied death as the camera floats through the steam of a train as though it were a cloud, death seems oddly comforting. And sometimes death, voiced here by primarily theater actor Roger Allam, seems to take an interest in all the many souls he overseas, even if their date for death is 80 years in the future.

For some reason unknown even to death, Liesel strikes his fancy the moment she looks over to her mother’s lap on the train and sees the lifeless corpse of her brother with blood trickling out of his cold head. With a shriek she alerts her mother, and they bury him along the train tracks with just a priest and two gravediggers to place his tiny body in the cold earth.

But with an end comes new beginnings and Liesel steals her first book, the gravedigger’s handbook, which had fallen from one of their pockets onto ash at the graveside.

It will keep the illiterate girl company as she moves in with her new, adoptive parents, while Hitler’s plans take out the communists and the Jews.

The initial meeting between Liesel and her new parents, Hans and Rosa, is easily my favorite scene in the film. The setting is perfect as they each take turns greeting her as she doesn’t move from the car as it lightly rains in front of their small home.

Hans is the best part of the movie, though.

Geoffrey Rush is a chameleon and has easily been the best part of many movies, but he shines brightly here as Hans and brings some much needed color to the drab and cold world much of the film otherwise inhabits. He teaches Liesel how to read, slowly, because he has much time on his hands as an underworked and “lazy,” as Rosa (Emily Watson), sign painter. He laughs, is sarcastic and brings joy to those who need it most, like when the entire town is huddled in an air raid shelter when the Allied forces begin the bombings. As everyone is fearful and tearful, he brings out his accordion and plays, captivating the people and letting them forget their troubles for just a short while.

But the gravity of the film – if there could be some gravity in such a light war movie – is the housing of a runaway Jew, Max (Ben Schnetzer), who needs to hide from the hunters. Hans apparently owes his life to the man’s father, who lost his own life in World War I saving Hans’ life, and for that the hiding begins. And it’s hard, because the town speaks out of fear that they, too, could become suspect.

Really, there isn’t much plot to “The Book Thief,” except for that of the small girl, whose performance may very well be a dark horse contender for at least an Oscar nod. She comes to terms not only with the changes in her own life but in a world quickly changing all around her.

The experience for any child, or anybody at all, during this period was surely harrowing, but this movie didn’t show it.

While it may very well make you feel good that children may play and frolic and shout “I hate Hitler!” across an empty lake, I very much doubt that such pleasantries were common and that life was as normal as this film made it out to be. We could still see the strength of people in their day-to-day lives, but it would be much stronger if the sense of time and place was made more evident outside of a few book burnings and swastikas.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)