For his novel "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury took inspiration from Nazi book burnings, among other historical examples of censorship. In going after his own celebration of reading, "The Book Thief," Australian novelist Markus Zusak went straight to the Nazi well, resulting in a bestseller and, you betcha, a Hollywood adaptation.
There will, of course, never be enough Nazi Germany-set dramas to fill the awards-season maw. Unfortunately, "The Book Thief" is conspicuously phony in its ruthless attempt to manipulate audiences. Deposited with foster parents, little Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) serves as coming-of-age witness to unfolding history. Most importantly, she develops a curiosity about reading, and so surreptitiously snatches (just like Bradbury's Guy Montag) a book from a censorious fire.
The taciturn girl soon takes to her kindly foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who smooths over the horrors of war with his squeeze box and reading lessons; his wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), meanwhile is tough as leather. The manner in which the film depicts Rosa as heartless then not-so-gradually reveals her heart of gold emblematizes the film's desire to yank chains and subtly scold the audience for preconceiving exactly what the filmmakers mean us to preconceive.
The intellectual dishonesty reaches its peak in a scene involving Liesl's Hitler Youth potential boyfriend, lemon-haired Rudy (Nico Liersch). The boy pretends to be Jesse Owens, and though he's supposed to have innocently applied blackface to emulate the sports hero, director Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey") allows only a few artlessly applied streaks on his face, so little as to just make the kid look weirdly dirty, not purposefully blackfaced. This craven refusal to risk offense demonstrates the length to which the film is willing to go for truth: not very far at all.
But if the film won't be honest, I will: "The Book Thief" definitively lost me right there. There are false notes in the production design, as well, and an offensive bloodlessness when violence erupts. I understand a certain bet-hedging to reach a younger audience, but Percival isn't doing younger viewers any favors.
Charitably, one might say the film is reaching for a kind of folk-tale feel (the better to pull the rug with a climactic gut punch of tragedy). In addition to including the first stirrings of young love, "The Book Thief" throws in an Anne Frank-y subplot of Hans and Rosa sheltering a Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer), and in a literary flourish, Death as a narrator (ably performed by British actor Roger Allam). The specter of Death hangs over the entire film, all the way through to a final confessional and final manipulation that is both unearned and pretty much senseless.
That Nelisse was so affecting in "Monsieur Lazhar" and so dull here also says a lot about Percival's failure to connect with reality and hide the project's dubious ambitions, for the manipulation of audiences and awards bodies.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material. Two hours, 11 minutes.