You would think that a film narrated by Death would create an appropriate sense of fear, but Death's voice is honey butter on warm toast as voiced by Roger Allam. Having an all-seeing voice adds a layer to the movie that models a book with an omniscient point of view, the book here being a young-adult novel written by Markus Zusak, with a screenplay by Michael Petroni, who also scripted one of the Chronicles of Narnia films.
The story follows a girl's placement into a foster family soon after her brother dies in their mother's arms. Liesel is wide-eyed and precocious, although illiterate, but she is lucky enough to land in the lap of Hans Huberman, a sign painter, who knows his letters. After Liesel is teased at her new school for not knowing her letters, he creates a basement glossary for her, its very walls lettered and worded as she learns how to read.
Director Brian Percival (he's worked on "Downton Abbey") spends very little time on the arduous task of reading. Liesel goes from knowing nothing to inhaling and ingesting books like delicious sauerbraten. She is courted by a tow-headed Rudy, her best friend in all the world, a world that is heading toward war when the story starts in 1938 and is finding peace when the story ends in 1945.
Sophie Nélisse plays Liesel, more bland than aware. Nico Liersch plays Rudy as brave and handsome; it's not the boy's fault that he appears younger in scenes later in the film as if the continuity guy lost his place. Geoffrey Rush plays Hans, a hulking and kindly presence, and he is winsome. Emily Watson is the best face to watch as Rosa, a witchy woman at the beginning, reminiscent of those German fairy tales. Barbara Auer is the burgermeister's wife, who helps Liesel. Ben Schnetzer is Max, the love interest and requisite hidden Jew. Their British and German accents are all over the place.
John Williams' score is swollen with telegraphic violins.
Even if you're a bibliophile over 12, say, and a lover of language and you think you should revel in this story of the power of words, "The Book Thief" manages, with its many unending endings, to betray your faith. If you have found solace in books, you will feel especially betrayed by the flimsy, sentimental story and rosy execution of "The Book Thief." You know you ought to appreciate it, but you know that you've been horribly let down. Even by Death.