The Reader (2008)
***Plot spoilers avoided***
In the late 1990s, I read a novel that was receiving rave reviews. It was ‘The Reader’, by Bernhard Schlink. I couldn’t put it down, and quickly realised why the reviews were so positive.
In 2008, I noticed that a film adaptation of the book was to be released. Directed by Stephen Daldry, and with a screenplay from David Hare, the cast included Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, and Bruno Ganz. This was going to be a must-see for me, of that I was certain. Very often, film adaptations of an impressive book often fail to deliver. Happily, this was not the case this time. Quite the opposite in fact, as the long running time and flawless cast brought the pages to life in one of the best transfers from a book to the screen that I have ever seen.
Very few films have ever brought tears to my eyes. This was one of them.
The film is set in Berlin, and flashes back and forth between events covering a period from the late 1940s, to the year 1995, but it is never confusing, and always obvious what period we are watching. It deals with the love affair between a boy of fifteen, and a woman more than twice his age, who happens to help him one day, when he is ill with scarlet fever. When he returns to thank her, they begin a sexual relationship that lasts for one summer. Hannah (Winslet) will only grant sexual favours after the boy has read to her from books he brings for the purpose. When she suddenly leaves the town for no reason, young Michael (David Kross) is confused and heartbroken, but gets on with his life as best he can, eventually going to Law School in Heidelburg. But he is always detached and serious, unlike most of his student colleagues.
As part of their studies, the tutor Professor Rohl, (Bruno Ganz) himself a Holocaust survivor, takes the class to witness a trial in action. It is a war crimes trial, with a group of women who were former concentration camp guards being tried for their part in a particular horrific incident. Michael immediately recognises Hannah as one of the accused, and is overwhelmed by this discovery. Although he is reluctant to watch the proceedings, he keeps going back with the class. As the trial continues, Michael suddenly discovers that Hannah is keeping a secret from both the court, and everyone who has ever met her. He divulges his discovery to the professor, who tells him to visit her, and discuss it. But he lacks the courage to go into the prison, and says nothing.
The second half of the film sees the older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) as a successful lawyer. He has a daughter, but his marriage has ended in divorce. Busy with his law work, he still sometimes thinks about Hannah, and the secret he never revealed to her, or to anyone. After moving from the family home into his own flat, he resolves to do something about it, and gets back into contact with her once again. To add more detail would involve plot spoilers that could well ruin the film for anyone who wants to see it, so I will stop there.
This is an unusual film, dealing with uncomfortable subjects in a very different way. There is some nudity and sex, but it is tastefully done, and never offensive. The viewer is also challenged to see another side of the murder of Jews during the war, that of a simple and ordinary young woman who viewed being a guard as little more than a well-paid job. This is a great deal more than a coming-of-age love story, but love is at the very heart of it. A love that lasts into middle age, and has a devastating effect on all other relationships. At times it is hard to watch, more so as you will find yourself feeling sympathy for Hannah, like it or not. And you may well identify with the life of Michael, consumed by a first love that endures despite all the other events surrounding his maturity.
Ralph Fiennes is as good as you might expect, lending a taut and obsessive air to the character of Michael. The always watchable Bruno Ganz makes a small role stand out with his usual consummate skill, and every minor character part is perfectly cast, never feeling less than authentic. But this is Winslet’s film. She is an actress that I can generally take or leave, but ‘The Reader’ may well be remembered as her finest hour. From her first scene to her last, she is mesmerising on screen, and portrays emotions with a studied nuance I hardly believed she was capable of. She acts the part of Hannah from the character’s late thirties, through to her late sixties, with little make-up used to age her, and no obvious prosthetic additions. Her transition from a relatively attractive woman to an elderly and tired old lady is simply amazing to watch, and the film comes alive when she is on screen.
She won the Oscar for best actress for this film. She also won the BAFTA for best actress, and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. (This is a strange one, as I cannot imagine who she was supporting.) I urge you to watch it, to find out why.
Here’s the official trailer.