Markus Zusak's The Book Thief is an enormously successful novel that has sold more than eight million copies and has moved many of its readers, me included. I try not to compare films too scrupulously with their source material but fans will be intrigued to know if the film manages to capture the horror, irony, courage and humanity of the original pages.
Regrettably it doesn't, although director Brian Percival has created a dignified and handsome film, filled with impressive performances and an emotional finale that will have you fumbling for a tissue.
The film is set in Germany between 1939 and 1943 and is narrated by Death (voiced by Roger Allam), who goes about his job objectively even if he is perplexed and haunted by how people conduct themselves.
He tells the story of 9-year-old Liesel Meminger (Nelisse) who he meets when her younger brother dies on a train on the way to the fictional town of Molching, Germany. Their mother, who is on the run from the Nazis, was delivering the siblings to a childless couple, the Hubermanns, and Liesel must now stay with them alone.
Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are well cast as the Hubermanns. Watson is just as you imagine Rosa: thin-lipped, austere and impatient with all those around her, but beneath the harshness has a warmth and fondness for her infuriating husband and new daughter.
It's with Hans, though, that Liesel really connects. The kind and warm Hans encourages her to learn to read and write. The power of words is also pressed on her by Max Vandenburg (Schnetzer), a Jew the Hubermanns hide in their basement, and the grief-stricken wife of the local Nazi commander, who notices Liesel's fondness for literature and lends her books.
As you expect from the director of Downton Abbey, The Book Thief is a handsome period piece, although the drama tends to fluctuate between the understated day-to-day and the overly sentimental and emotional. Well-known names make this film accessible, but despite great performances there's a disconnect between a film striving to be very authentic in its setting and environment and its characters speaking English with a German accent.
The Book Thief manages to capture the horror of war and the tension of life in the Hubermann household, and there are moments that will shock those not familiar with the story.
But it fails to make the most of what made the book unique - Death as a narrator. In the book, Death is an intelligent observer of what happens and offers a profound view on life, while in the film he's really just a narrator, a gimmick that pulls the story together.
Nevertheless, this is a rewarding and emotional film filled with heart, a celebration of the power of words and a reminder that in times of madness there are still those who recognise the simple difference between right and wrong.
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse, Ben Schnetzer
Director: Brian Percival
Running time: 131 mins
Rating: PG (violence)
Verdict: Moving and sentimental, but lacks the edge of the novel