Death narrates "The Book Thief," an adaptation of Markus Zusak's 2005 novel set in Nazi Germany, and you may be disappointed to find that he's neither a chilling nor comforting figure, just an arch twerp with a mean streak.
"One small fact -- you are going to die," he says in the voice of the fine British actor Roger Allam. His audible smirk isn't enough, though. Death can't resist adding, "Sorry to be such a spoiler."
This unpleasant character has little to do with the story we're about to be told (except in the most obvious, universal way), but there's a reason he keeps intruding. Without his dark commentary, "The Book Thief" would be an unforgivably upbeat look at Nazi Germany in the throes of World War II.
Our heroine is young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), sent to live in a small village with foster parents. They are Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush), a twinkly-eyed accordion player, and his wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), a brusque washerwoman with a heart of gold. Local schoolboy Rudy (Nico Liersch), an Aryan angel who nevertheless idolizes Jesse Owens, promptly falls for her. Meanwhile, Liesel's new family hides Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jew, in their basement. Despite his illness, he's dreamily handsome.
Nélisse ("Monsieur Lazhar"), a 13-year-old French-Candian actress, is dreamier still, and director Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey") can't get enough of her strawberry curls, slate-blue eyes and cherubic lips. Beauty, however, is about all that "The Book Thief" requires of her. Liesel is a voracious reader with the soul of a poet (we're told), but in the end her character is just a German Pollyanna. Actually, she doesn't even turn any frowns upside-down, since everyone is smiling from the start.
Given that "The Book Thief" is set against a backdrop of mass insanity and genocide, you might expect someone in the film to display a trait worse than, say, crankiness. Even Death, at his worst, is merely snotty. "When the time comes, don't panic," he advises. "It doesn't seem to help."
PLOT During World War II, a young German girl is sent to live with foster parents in a small village.
RATING PG-13 (some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)
CAST Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson
BOTTOM LINE Gorgeous photography and a potential new star in 13-year-old Nélisse, but this is the rosiest view of Nazi Germany since "The Sound of Music." Without the music.