It had to happen: There’s so much voiceover narration in today’s movies, so much needless verbal play-by-play, that it was only a matter of time before somebody made a picture narrated by that life of the party himself, Death. The Grim Reaper delivers the opening monologue of The Book Thief, Brian Percival’s adaptation of Markus Zusak’s novel about a somber, precocious schoolgirl in Nazi Germany, and his voice sounds a lot like Roger Allam’s, probably because it is Roger Allam’s. You can’t fault that choice: Death probably would sound a lot like an esteemed English character actor.
But The Book Thief is just so silly, despite the fact that it deals with a very grave time in history, one in which Death certainly had a field day. It’s 1938 and young Liesel (played by French newcomer Sophie Nélisse), for reasons that aren’t immediately spelled out, has been dispatched by her mother to a small German town to live with a new family, winkling, twinkling Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and stern, scowling Rosa (Emily Watson). It wasn’t an easy journey — her younger brother died en route — and Liesel’s problems only mount when she starts school: Her teacher and classmates learn, to her shame, that she can’t read.
But with the help of good-natured Hans, Liesel soon discovers the power of words. She also forges one of those sweet kiddie romances with a neighbor boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch), who, with his spun-gold hair and Teutonic features, would make a fine Hitler Youth in training, though he’s a good kid and has no such ambitions. Still, the two are caught up in their times: Their brown school uniforms are decorated with swastikas, and they join their schoolmates in singing nationalistic anthems with gusto. In their off-hours, they cavort through the streets of the little town like living Hummels. What could go wrong?
You can probably guess. Liesel’s future is shaped by a mysterious guest, a serious-minded young man named Max (Ben Schnetzer), who comes to stay with the family. By that time, books have become dangerous objects, but it’s too late for Liesel to turn back; she loves them too much. And so she must resort to illicit means to get them.
It all sounds rather sweet, and to a point, it is. Nélisse makes a good heroine: She has an arresting face, with watchful eyes — she brings some depth to the material even when there’s really none. And, as shot by Florian Ballhaus, the movie has a prestige-picture glow — its palette has the faded softness of old hand-tinted photographs.
The Book Thief is just too tidy to have much impact. Percival — who has directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey — approaches the material earnestly, but when it veers into the territory of literary preciousness, he doesn’t know how to rein it in. It’s made very clear that even though Liesel and Rudy are growing up in the shadow of the Nazi regime, they’re not Nazis themselves.
They wear swastikas on their little uniform sleeves just because everyone else is doing it: Don’t hate them because they’re conformists. Late in the movie, they stand at the edge of a river, shouting, “I hate Hitler!” into oblivion. Take that, ŸFührer! But they’re conveniently one-dimensional; we, and they, always know they’re standing on the correct side of history. The story can’t risk any blurred edges.
Worse yet, this is a movie about the love of words. Liesel is, of course, destined to be a writer, because she loves words so much. Each time she learns a new one, she writes it on a chalkboard that Hans has kindly set up for her. Words, how marvelous! The way they swirl and dance on the page. The way they carry so much meaning and beauty in their little vowel-shaped baskets. Few people want to acknowledge this, but lovers of words make lousy writers. They tend to get so high on their own supply that they forget real human beings will have to read their deadly, thesaurusy prose, full of ostensibly delicious nuggets like “reticule” and “hollyhock.” The hopeful message of The Book Thief is that words have the power to triumph over everything, even Hitler. That may be true if we’re talking about, say, the diaries of Victor Klemperer or Anne Frank. But yelling “I hate Hitler” across a river? You can sum up the power of those words using just two: no dice.