Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief
Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief

Death is a funny thing.

Or at least it tries to be in The Book Thief.

I'm speaking of the narrator Death (played by Roger Allam) in the movie based on the best-selling 2005 novel by Markus Zusak. Death lurks over the proceedings, providing a wry commentary on a movie that's enjoyable enough despite it never deciding which tone -- depressing, playful, satirical -- it should take.

The setting, the first scene, and really the general plot of The Book Thief would seem to indicate a maudlin affair. The eponymous book thief is Liesel Merminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young girl who is sent with her brother to live with foster parents during the height of Nazi Germany. Her brother dies on the train there and she finds a book by his grave, but alas, she cannot read.

The foster mother, Rosa Hubermann (Emily Watson) is stern and scary (at least at first), which is probably why she washes other people's clothes for a living. The foster father though? You would think it was Oktoberfest every day the way he acts, though maybe it's just natural considering he's played by charm incarnate, Geoffrey Rush. His Hans joyfully winks at Liesel and teaches her to read and plays his accordion on his front steps during air raids. His manner of non-violent protest is to paint over public swastikas and harbor a Jew named Max (Ben Schnetzer) in his basement.

Rush's charisma carries the film, which otherwise features Liesel borrowing -- and later stealing -- books from one of Rosa's customers and making eyes at her classmate Rudy (Nico Liersch). Rudy's admittedly one of the cuter kids on Earth, though he doesn't have much to say outside of teenage pickup lines.


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The most prevalent presence is that of Death, whose voice drips with snark as if he has some enlightening point about the horror of Nazism or murder. Its smug tone is jarring and almost unintentionally funny on film, especially due to the subject matter (heightened by lush cinematography by Florian Ballhaus) and the ultimate fates of the characters we generally seem to like, if not care for. The Book Thief stole its source material, and turned it into a joke.

Grade: C+

Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.

Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.