The film opens with a shabby train steaming its way in February 1938 through a cold bleak countryside. We come to realise that the narrator is Death, and one of his first victims is a young boy who dies in the arms of his mother. The mother then has to give up her daughter for adoption.
That daughter, Liesel (played by Sophie Nélisse), gains what appears to be the foster-mother from Hades, Rosa (Emily Watson), and her apparently ineffectual but engaging husband Hans (Geoffrey Rush).
In many ways, this is a film about books and words. Liesel initially says very little, and we learn that she cannot read or write. With Hans' help she falls in love with words, to the extent of rescuing a book from a book-burning, and stealing books from the wealthy Burgomaster's library. She also has a beautifully depicted friendship with Rudy (Nico Liersch), a friendship where mutual longing and loyalty develops into unacknowledged love.
Geoffrey Rush brings whimsy, compassion and courage to his depiction of a gentle man, whose values do not let him join the Nazi party and whose warmth and sense of fun thaw the grieving heart of his charge.
A fugitive young Jew called Max (Ben Schnetzer) turns up asking for shelter, and Hans and Rosa risk their lives to hide him. Liesel reads to Max, who encourages her to write in a diary. "Tell me about the sun," Max asks. "It is like a silver oyster," says Liesel.
This is a bitter-sweet film, with moments of joy and discovery, and tentative explorations of love. And always there is the possibility of death by discovery of the Jew, by conscription to the war, or by the increasing terror of air-raids.
As Liesel the 12 year old Nélisse is magical. Yes, she is beautiful, but she also has the capacity to express feelings – joy, love, anger, fear, grief and mischief – in a way that seems artless.
To say more would be to revel too much of the plot – perhaps not the film's greatest strength, if truth be told.
But strengths it does have – mostly the depiction of fascinating people still showing warmth and humanity under almost unremitting pressure.
As the author said in a recent interview, It was impossible to fit all the nuances and stories of his book into the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and highly recommend it, but go one better and read the book. It is the best I have ever read and changed my outlook on life and death. See my reviewhttps://www.weekendnotes.com/the-book-thief-markus-zusak/