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'The Book Thief' Will Steal Your Heart

Geoffrey Rush's acting chops keep this drama from beating you over the head with its mission statement

Rating: PG-13     Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nélisse, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Nico Liersch

Director: Brian Percival

Though based on a huge best-seller — the 2006 Markus Zusak novel of the same name — The Book Thief is a small movie. 

Broadly about the power of the written word to transport us beyond the most dire circumstances (in this case, Nazi Germany), the film is at heart a simple but beautiful tale of the unconditional love between a father and his daughter.

Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse in The Book Thief.

20th Century Fox

Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse.

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Director Brian Percival, who helmed several recent episodes of Downton Abbey, makes some brilliant casting choices here, notably Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King's Speech) as the father, Hans, and newbie Sophie Nélisse as his daughter, Liesel.

Liesel is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann after she witnesses the death of her baby brother (the children and their mother had attempted to flee their winter-ravaged, war-torn country). A house painter by trade, Hans kindly welcomes the emotionally ravaged Liesel. Rosa, by contrast — played by the talented Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) — is overly harsh to the girl. Though Rosa's obduracy is initially unconvincing, she softens over time into a more nuanced, more believable character.

Liesel has a bright inner spirit. She can't yet read, but she arrives at her new home in a working-class Munich neighborhood clutching treasure: It's The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she pilfered at her brother's funeral. Hans sits with her for hours, patiently teaching her to decipher its words. Born of larceny, Liesel's love of reading continues to be fed by the books she steals from public libraries — and from the homes of friends.

Before long, Hans and Rosa also find themselves sheltering a sickly Jewish refugee named Max, the son of a man who once saved Hans's life. They hide Max (played by the excellent Ben Schnetzer, who lost 37 pounds for the role) in their sometimes-freezing basement, where Liesel often seeks him out for reading sessions. The two forge a bond, with Liesel providing Max precious reports of the outside world. Both escape their worries — about the Allied bombings in progress, about the Nazi officers conducting door-to-door searches — through the medium of books.

Various scenes in The Book Thief are melodramatic, and the portrayal of Liesel's childhood romance with a neighbor boy named Rudy (played by budding German child actor Nico Liersch) is cloying. The film's earnest messages about freedom of expression — set against a backdrop of Nazi propaganda and oppression — are likewise a bit heavy-handed.

Still, watching the gentle and empathetic Rush care for this beleaguered family — and tenderly interact with Nélisse — makes up for the schmaltz.

Meg Grant is West Coast Editor of AARP The Magazine.