FILM: The Reader CERTIFICATE: 15 RUNNING TIME: 124 mins VENUE: Broadway Cinema
I'M always a bit wary about films that concern the Holocaust (even more so after last year's disappointing The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas), as they are either too emotionally draining or are merely trying to find a stylish approach to a subject that still cuts deep.
The Reader is an adaptation of the 1995 novel by German author Bernhard Schlink, which was a commercial success both in Germany and, in its translated form, in America. The book dealt with the problems of understanding historical events by future generations, when increasingly it is only written records they have to rely on and refer to.
Ralph Fiennes plays lawyer Michael Berg whom we meet in 1995 in his native Berlin. His mind flashes back to 1958 when he was a young student and met a woman called Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) who worked as a tram conductor. They have a brief affair which is initially purely physical, but develops when he starts reading to her.
Hanna has a fascination with the books that he is studying and the couple lie for hours with Michael reading works by the likes of Homer and Chekhov to her. Things end abruptly when Hanna moves job and Michael arrives one day to find her apartment empty.
The opening 45 minutes of The Reader is very much a romance story, with teenage German actor David Kross playing young Michael. He is a class act and the interplay between him and Winslet is very good. The futility of the affair is apparent and the realisation that nothing is going to come from it (except heartache), but this is all conveyed through suggestion rather than clumsy plot devices.
Film-makers should credit audiences with more understanding and The Reader tells its story with a composure that makes it all the more effective.
The action jumps forward to 1966, with Michael now a law student. He attends court as part of his studies and finds that Hanna is one of a number of former SS Guards on trial for war crimes.
Kate Winslet's performance in The Reader has already won her a Golden Globe (for Supporting Actress) and she is up for an Oscar in the main Best Actress category at the Academy Awards later this month. She has come on leaps and bounds since Titanic and pulls off a role that looked strewn with pitfalls, with surprising ease.
The steamy romance section was tricky enough, as were the subsequent courtroom scenes, but she also has to play Hanna as an old woman with heavy make-up, and is equally convincing.
Ralph Fiennes sensibly underplays his part as the older Michael, functioning mainly as the framing story and leaving the main drama to the other players (a sure sign of a mature actor).
With all the plaudits being thrown in its direction, I assumed The Reader was going to be good, but not this good. It manages to evoke passion in a similar way to The English Patient and deals with difficult subject matter effortlessly.
It has countless opportunities to become overly sentimental or dramatic and resists every one of them, resulting in a film which by its conclusion, has you not knowing which quality to praise the most.
Overall – 9/10