Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes
Direction: Stephen Daldry
Rating: *** & 1/2
Over time, scores of fiction films as well as documentaries have addressed the horrors of the Holocaust. The Reader is another example.
The adaptation of a controversial, semi-autobiographical novel by German jurist Bernhard Schlink, examines the after-effects of the genocide on the Germans themselves. A rarely-discussed subject, it sparks a sincere if not wholly persuasive take on the tumultuous era.
More than two decades after World War II, a middle-aged woman (Winslet) is on trial for crimes committed as a guard at the concentration camps.
A law student (18-year-old David Kross in an assured debut) recognises the defendant as the much-older tram conductor with whom he had a passionate affair eight years ago.
Their daily trysts had been punctuated by an odd ritual. As foreplay, she had insisted that he read aloud passages from literary classics such as Homer’s Odyssey and Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the little Dog.
So far, so intriguing. Years later again, as a prominent advocate (an appropriately morose Fiennes), the former lover visits her in prison.
Meanwhile she has been reading with the help of audio recordings. Inevitably, the finale has an emotional sting.
The screenplay by playwright David Hare, who also collaborated with director Daldry on his previous film The Hours, probes complex issues of morality, justice, education and redemption.
In a touching coda, the attorney meets one of the survivors (Lena Olin) of Auschwitz. While emphasising that the atrocities should never be forgotten or forgiven, the wealthy matron cautions, “nothing came out of the camps”.
Kate Winslet sheds all vestiges of star persona, even getting the gruff German accent spot-on. Yet her performance leaves us with a niggling doubt — was it truly Oscar worthy? Hasn’t Meryl Streep tackled such roles before (Sophie’s Choice) with superior effect?
Ultimately, The Reader is a sombre reminder of the savagery that marked a not-too-distant epoch. Recommended for those who value sense and substance at the movies.