Given the unspeakable horror surrounding the Holocaust, it is perhaps natural that most Holocaust films are simple in their politics and high on the sentimental quotient. Stephen Daldry?s latest film, The Reader
, is neither of these two things.
Adapted from the German novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader
is a story of two lives ? one, a woman, Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet) who was a guard at a Nazi prison during the Second World War, and the other, a young boy, Michael Berg (David Kross) who has an intense affair with this woman who is years older than him. The two part ways abruptly and Michael sees her only years later, at her trial. Stricken by guilt, he withholds crucial information that might help her case. It is this guilt that shapes his character and his life.
Wise to the controversial and horrific nature of the Holocaust, Daldry maintains a conscious distance from dramatic, sentimental comments that such films often indulge in. The focus of The Reader
is on the human; and what makes it drastically different from a majority of Holocaust films is that the human here is, or was, a Nazi guard.
Daldry has spent considerable time and thought on the central relationship of this film ? between Hannah and Michael. The relationship is so beautifully portrayed that it demands understanding despite its tabooed nature. Daldry uses the age difference in this simple but unusual relationship in such a mind-boggling way that you don?t even realize when it develops from an illicit affair into something of social and even political significance.
Daldry is a master storyteller, one who lets the intertwining strains of a story be visible, not bothering to be bogged down by traditional modes of narration. He plays with time, almost alternating between the young and the older Michael (Ralph Fiennes), and yet, The Reader
is far from confusing. Daldry adds meaning to every visual without being overbearing or esoteric.
is among those films that demonstrate perfect sync between the vision of the director and the delivery by actors. The film becomes what it is because of Kate Winslet who has outdone herself, leaving miles behind her own previous performances in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
and more recently, Little Children
. The Hannah she plays facilitates a rethink of the moral absolutes we have inherited, whether it is with reference to her relationship with a young boy, or about her Nazi past. Winslet?s range of emotions silently nudges us towards looking at this one woman instead of an entire, larger than life event.
One of the weakest points of the film, however, is Ralph Fiennes, though that is not entirely his fault, because he just doesn?t look right for the part. For starters, he is too old, and since he is meant to be younger than Winslet?s character, when they meet again, the desperate attempt to make Winslet look older stands out like a sore thumb. Neither Fiennes nor David Kross are a match to Winslet, she owns this film.
One detail that Daldry has failed to notice is the variety of accents that we are witness to. Even if we ignore that Germans seem to habitually converse in English, why should conflicting accents be present in one film is a question that is valid. For instance, Fiennes? accent is decidedly different from Kross? though they play the same character.
Stephen Daldry has earlier made films like Billy Elliott
and the much acclaimed The Hours
. With The Reader
, Daldry has made yet another film that has a gentle pace but an incredible impact. It may not bag the Oscar but it is very well-made film and comes highly recommended.
Other Oscar reviews
Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonSlumdog MillionaireMilkChangelingFrost/Nixon