In "The Book Thief," young Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse finds a way to maintain a vulnerability that creates a natural sympathy for her character, Liesel.
She plays a youngster sent to live with a foster family in Germany just before the start of World War II. Her initial hesitance at being taken in by the couple passes as she soon discovers the wonders of reading. She's so impassioned by books, Liesel puts her life in danger in a world of book burnings.
So much of the joy and terror that unfolds plays through Sophie's expressive face. It's a lot to ask of any actor, but especially challenging for someone so young. But there's never a misstep. Sophie has the engaging sweetness of a young Drew Barrymore and the acting chops of veteran Meryl Streep. It's a lethal combination that gives the movie a solid central core.
The young actor's work would have been enough, but director Brian Percival surrounds her with a first-rate cast topped by Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as her foster parents.
For Rush, this grounded role is quite a change from what we have come to expect. He is best known for bigger-than-life acting jobs in works from "Shine" to "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." He answers the call with a caring, fatherly touch.
Watson's role is as the demanding matriarch, but the actress brings such depth to the performance it's not a surprise when the character finally lets her guard down and reveals her vulnerabilities. Roles like this tend to feel so cold that it's hard to believe there's any chance of an emotional thaw. Watson plays it perfectly.
Percival started from a good spot with a solid story based on the book by Markus Zusak. The story works as an examination of the battle between the thirst for knowledge and the dependency on ignorance that helped the Nazi party spread. War is a ghoulish spectre that enters and leaves the lives of this family, but it is always waiting just outside along with the character of Death (Roger Allam), who narrates the story.
These external forces are catalysts for events in the lives of these people, but the focus is always the connection the three make and embrace no matter what's going on in the outside world.
Percival had to make some serious decisions about elements of the book that wouldn't have worked on screen. Fans of the book may lament the losses. But as a film, the decision to make this a family drama set in a world of despair, hope, fear and courage is what gives it an Oscar-caliber feel.
As good as the source material, the power of "The Book Thief" comes from Sophie. Percival makes a few missteps along the way — particularly a rushed ending— but Sophie's performance is so unforgettable that words fail to do it justice.
"The Book Thief," rated PG-13 for violence. Stars Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. Directed by Brian Percival. Running time: 125 minutes. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.