Film review: The Book Thief (12A)

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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.

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Unseen until the final frames, the shadowy figure casts an unsentimental eye over characters in the midst of bitter and bloody conflict. “The only truth that I truly know is that I am haunted by humans,” he confides.

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).

One night, a Jewish refugee called Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer) arrives at the Hubermanns’ home and they offer him shelter in the basement.

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.”