MEEK AT THE MOVIES : THE BOOK THIEF ( 2 stars )

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^ Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse in Brian Percival’s World war Ii pot-boiler “The Book Thief”

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Call me a curmudgeon, but it seems today that all the haute, wild-fire books that are flimsy quick reads, hitting on one or two hot issues and built around a slightly-more-than two-dimensional hero or heroine, have become sure-fire template fodder for profitable spins into film. “Twilight” maybe the most egregious example and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” itself notoriously birthed from the “Twilight” franchise, is one in the making. Then there’s the “Hunger Games.”

What a book about the Holocaust might have to do with this phenomenon may seem far flung or troubling, but Markus Zusak’s novel, which the movie “The Book Thief” is based upon, is little more than a safe PG watering down of the horrific events that took place in Germany leading up to, and during, World War II. It’s more young adult than dramatic literature or historical record. As a matter of fact, it’s not history at all, but historical fiction, another genre, along with YA, rapidly budding and laying fertile ground for studios execs who see a ready and willing-to-pay audience lined up en masse for a cinematic translation of their beloved book.
It’s a lazy and vacant process, but also good business.

That said, the film adaptation of “Thief,” has much in its corner. Brian Percival, the hand behind the hit PBS series “Downton Abbey,” directs ; Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and Academy Award nominee Emily Watson head the cast. Unfortunately, the material, while earnest, is beneath them. Percival at times seems a bit befuddled by the bombast going on in the bigger world, and it doesn’t help that his ability to string together tight cloistered moments of intimacy, which worked so well in the smaller medium, gets compromised in the grander, more urgent framework.

For all purposes, Western Europe could be Middle Earth and the Nazis orcs, as all are essentially grotesque minions performing their bloody tasks sans remorse and often with a trace of glee. The imperiled heroine driving the plot comes in the pint-sized form of Liesel (Sophie NĂ©lisse), a young curly-locked waif embossed with wide wondrous eyes who, on the run with her mother (who’s an accused communist under scrutiny), is turned over to the tart tongued Rosa (Watson) and her reserved husband, Hans (Rush) for foster rearing.

Much of what we learn about Liesel is told to us in ominous voice-overs by Death, who admits he is smitten with the girl as he pays a visit to the fleeing family, aboard a train, to claim her younger brother. Why Death is so infatuated with Liesel is unclear, but our notorious and unseen narrator speaks with avuncular charm as if this were a Christmas tale (voiced by Roger Allam) and calmly assures us with his sagacious omniscience that all is as he says it is; and it’s easily and wholly believable despite the troubling the nature of the source.

The meaning of the film’s title stems from Liesel’s penchant for pinching bound tomes; something ironic initially, because she can’t read and is routinely chided at school for her developmental inadequacy. Early on she nips a gravedigger’s manual, and later pilfers books from the library of a Nazi commandant, whose wife has taken a liking to Liesel. Hans catches onto Liesel’s activity and the pair forge a palpable bond during covert candlelight reading sessions. Rosa too begins to soften from her austere facade, but then the nascent familial unit is challenged when they take in Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish refugee whose father saved Hans’s life during the first world war.

NĂ©lisse, who looks something like Emma Watson from her Harry Potter years, handles the burden of the focus well. She’s solidified by (Emily) Watson and Rush who go a long way to cement over the maudlin air-brushing. The film does well to give Liesel complex affections for the older Max and her towheaded classmate, Rudy (Nico Liersch).

In the fantastical distillation of events and atrocities, much of the outside pressure comes from basement sweeps (for Jews) by friends and neighbors now serving the Fuehrer and Brown Shirts who bully the fleet-footed Rudy for idolizing Jesse Owens. The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus (“Devil Wears Prada”) is artistic and opulent, especially the stunningly stark opening sequence as a black train (and later, a black limousine) travels through the snow covered countryside, endlessly pristine and crystalline. The metaphor for innocence and darkness is conspicuously there, but rapturous to behold no matter what.

For what it is — a foot in the door of Ann Frank’s world– “Thief” may pay dividends if it channels young viewers to Wikipedia to review history and fact. Other films that have played loose with the record, “Life is Beautiful” and “Inglorious Basterds,” have done well by deepening the understanding of the horror and inhumanity. “Thief” unfortunately is a heart-string pulling yarn ostensibly spun for the marketplace that employs the world-changing war as a plot driving backdrop. It’s shameless artifice and in that, true meaning is lost.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies