Rarely has a story about an angelic schoolgirl been narrated by Death. But such is the case in the dark, yet wondrous Nazi Germany-set "The Book Thief." ''Here's a small fact: You are going to die," we're told via voiceover by the Grim Reaper as we meet our young heroine, Liesel Meminger, played exquisitely by 13-year-old French-Canadian newcomer Sophie Nelisse.
Traveling by train in 1939, Liesel and her ailing younger brother are being taken to a small German town by their poor mother. Once there, they'll be handed over to their new foster parents. But as a line of blood drips from her motionless sibling's nose, Liesel's large blue eyes widen in horror as she discovers her brother has died. Now, she must embrace her new life alone.
At her brother's funeral, a gravedigger misplaces his "Gravedigger's Handbook" and Liesel grabs it and tucks it under her coat. This becomes her connection to the past — she cradles the book when she sleeps and keeps a photo of her brother tucked between the pages.
Based on Markus Zusak's 2006 best-selling young-adult novel, "The Book Thief" is a bittersweet wartime drama about an uneducated little girl who grows into a polished author. Directed by Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey"), the film shines a bright light on Nelisse, a fresh young talent whose expressive eyes say everything.
The film also stars the brilliant Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush as Rosa and Hans Hubermann, Liesel's adoptive parents. Rosa is strict and rigid, while the accordion-toting Hans is tender and armed with a delightful sense of humor. From the moment he meets Liesel, he calls her "Your Majesty." His warmth helps relieve her uneasiness and when he finally makes her smile, we're grateful to him.
As a couple, Rosa and Hans offer much-needed comic relief. Watson is her usual dynamic self, especially when bickering at Rush's Hans over dinner. Rush plays the part of the lax husband, his kind nature a far cry from the sinister roles he's portrayed in films like "Quills" or "Pirates of the Caribbean."
When Max Vandernburg (Ben Schnetzer), the son of a Jewish soldier who gave his life for Hans in World War I, arrives at the Hubermanns' doorstep, the couple take him in. But, they must hide him in their basement. Liesel and Max become fast friends. They bond over literature and share a common vice: They've both stolen books.
Max encourages Liesel to read (Hans has been teaching her how) and to eventually write. "If your eyes could speak, what would they say?" he asks her. When Max falls ill, Liesel spends hours reading to him from books she's swiped from a rich couple, for whom Rosa does laundry.
Courageous yet cautious, Liesel is unaffected by the adoration of her new neighbor, Rudy Steiner (Nico Liersch), a sweet-faced blond who dreams of becoming a sprinter like his idol, African-American track and field great Jesse Owens. Though Rudy's frequent requests to kiss Liesel go unanswered, the two become close enough that Liesel shares her biggest secret: Her family is harboring a Jew.
Despite saluting the decree of Hitler during a large book burning (at which Liesel steals another book), Rudy keeps this secret. His loyalty sharpens their bond and when he asks why she steals books, Liesel confides, "When life robs you, sometimes you have to rob it back."
With a wardrobe awash with rich sapphire and crimson, and dreamy scenes of the German countryside coated in snow, the visual scope of the film is remarkable. But just as our narrator told us at the beginning of the film: Death is imminent. As the Nazi's reign, the movie closes on an utterly sob-worthy note. Still, Liesel's triumphs keep our heads up.
"The Book Thief," a Fox 2000 Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some violence and intense depiction of thematic material." Running time: 131 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.