Markus Zusak’s 2005 bestseller “The Book Thief” is a novel that is narrated by Death himself. Sadly enough, something seems to have died on the story’s way to the screen. A tale of WWII Germany as seen through the eyes of a young girl, the film is unobjectionable, sentimental, and not a little dull. Audiences who go to the movies for period décor and tidy tales of wartime struggle and courage will be moved, and the book’s many fans may appreciate the way the film faithfully re-creates events on the page while keeping them generic enough for everyone to agree upon. Director Brian Percival has cut his teeth on “Downton Abbey” episodes; on the evidence of that show and this film, he’s an expert embalmer.
The heroine is young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), but by far the liveliest person in the movie is her foster father, Hans Hubermann, played by the reliably delightful Geoffrey Rush (“The King’s Speech”). When “The Book Thief” opens, Liesel is traveling by train with her mother (Heike Makatsch) to live in a small town with the Hubermanns, who will be paid to take the girl in and who could use the money. The mother, a Communist, is presumably being Sent Elsewhere. It’s all very mysterious.
Zusak’s novel is a story of “ordinary Germans” enduring the war and quietly resisting — some of them, anyway — Hitler’s mass social brainwashing. Liesel finds herself drawn to the gentle, henpecked Hans and frightened by his fearsome, henpecking wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), whose slow mellowing is one of the film’s more charming subplots. There are many subplots, including a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), who hides in the Hubermann’s basement and provides Liesel with friendship and a budding writer’s first audience.
The Book Thief
The title, you see, comes from Liesel’s fascination with books, which she purloins even before she knows how to read. She pockets one volume left over from a Nazi book-burning, and a rare flight of visual inspiration in “The Book Thief” comes when the girl walks down a late-night street with her adopted father, smoke pouring from the smoldering pages hidden under her coat. (The book turns out to be H.G. Wells’s “The Invisible Man,” a quietly ironic choice for Liesel to read to the stricken Max.
Elsewhere, the film traipses through the national trauma with impersonal good taste. When Liesel and her little friend Rudy (Nico Liersch) — he loves US Olympian Jesse Owens and covers himself in mud as a blackface tribute to the runner — have had enough of the Reich, they head into the woods and yell “I hate Hitler!” as loudly as possible. That’ll show ’em.
“The Book Thief” is well intentioned, suspenseful within individual scenes, and dramatically inert overall, with Nélisse giving a sympathetic yet flavorless performance in the lead. A viewer gets a more cataclysmic sense of danger from Florian Ballhaus’s cinematography — the violent red of Nazi flags seems to stab out from the gray winter streets — than from the characters or their predicaments.
Every so often Death chimes in on the soundtrack, speaking in the plummy tones of British actor Roger Allam. It’s a device that can work when deployed by a skilled writer but that can feel embarrassingly affected onscreen. Or would, if “The Book Thief” ran with it rather than hesitantly acknowledging the novel’s framing structure. This is a film too unimaginative to feel freshly told and too timid for kitsch; it falls in the middle ground of adaptations made acceptable for the meeting of your next literary group. It’s not a movie, it’s a bookmark.