The Reader (2008)

Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz

Directed by: Stephen Daldry

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader

Germany, 1958. A country still struggling to rebuild itself after the Second World War, burdened with unbearable guilt, shame, anger and suspicion over the events that took place under Hitler's regime. Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) embarks on an affair with an older woman, a tight-lipped but sensual bus conductress called Hanna (Kate Winslet). When they're not engaged in sexual athletics, schoolboy Michael reads to Hanna – everything from Homer to Hergé. Then one day, Hanna disappears, and the affair ends as unexpectedly as it began.

Fast forward eight years, and Michael is a law student. As part of his studies, he attends a high profile trial. In the dock is his ex-lover, charged with murdering over 300 people, whilst working as a prison guard at Auschwitz. And Michael knows something about Hanna that could change the whole direction of the trial – a secret which she herself would rather spend a lifetime in prison that divulge.

With his youthful optimism, ambitions and intelligence, Michael represents Germany's new hope for the future, a generation unblemished by the taint of war. But his lifelong entanglement with Hanna proves that you can never escape the legacy of a guilty past, nor ever truly lay it to rest either.

Yup, The Reader is not a cheery, mindless night out at the pictures. Instead, it's a thought-provoking, almost existential film that tackles all the biggies: law, morality, complicity, guilt, redemption and absolution, and the way that love can be buffeted helplessly between them all. True, it raises more questions than it (or any other film) could ever answer, but the fact that it poses them at all is laudable.

However, the stiff upper lifts of its central protagonists, Winslet and Ralph Fiennes (who plays Michael as an adult) and its (admittedly admirable) refusal to spell everything out in a monotonous voiceover, do prevent us from ever getting too emotionally involved. Instead, we're invited to view the unfolding events almost dispassionately, and to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions too. What would we have done in Hanna's place? It's not something we really want to think about too deeply.

Kate Winslet's performance as the clumpy, frumpy Hanna is superb, and with all that ugly prosthetic ageing make-up, she's a shoe-in for an Oscar. Ralph Fiennes, surely the king of repressed emotions, is on his usual elegant, understatedly brilliant form, while German newcomer David Kross is also excellent and utterly credible as his younger self (even if he does look rather more like David Walliams than the austere, chisel-featured Fiennes).

What with Defiance and Valkyrie jostling at the box office, not to mention last year's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (which suddenly seems like Spielberg schmaltz when compared to The Reader's restrained intellectualism), it seems as if films set in Germany during or after the war have never been more popular. And, absorbing and at times shocking, The Reader is a worthy and worthwhile addition to the canon.

  • Share on Tumblr