If there can be such a thing as a sweet, reflective fable about death and the Holocaust, The Book Thief is it. Based on the bestseller by Markus Zusak, the film tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl left in the care of foster parents Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his strict laundress wife, Rosa (Emily Watson). It’s gentle Hans who teaches the illiterate Liesel how to read. Since the story is set in Nazi Germany, you can see what’s coming when good Christian Hans takes in Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish boy whose father saved Hans during World War I. Hidden in the basement (a distinct allusion to Anne Frank’s attic), Max is read to by Liesel, who steals books from the library of a local bürgermeister. A bond grows, and some valuable and scary life lessons are learned.
The simplicity of Michael Petroni’s script seems a drawback at first. But skilled director Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) slowly, effectively tightens the vise as evil intrudes into the life of this child. Rush, an actor of unerring grace and grit, gives a touching, vital performance. He doesn’t shout. Neither does the film. Its grieving heart is never in question.