With “that speech” by Kate Winslet recently becoming the stuff of national debate, The Reader has certainly had its fair share of publicity this new year. Adapted from the novel by Bernhard Schlink, trailers promise a unique tale of romance, woven into the intriguing backdrop of post World War Two Germany. Yet amidst Winslet’s delight and five Oscar nominations, including best film, can The Reader possibly live up to its own hype? In a word – yes.
Eased slowly into the plot, we first meet our protagonist, Michael (Ralph Fiennes), in mid 90s Berlin; a successful, yet troubled lawyer, struggling to bury the ghosts of his past. With director Stephen Daldry (of The Hours and Billy Elliot) at its helm, The Reader steers confidently between various time periods, soon transporting us back to 1958, where a young Michael, played now by David Kross, is about to have his life changed forever.
Aged just fifteen, a chance encounter with a woman twice his age sparks an intense love affair and Michael spends a summer in passionate secrecy, abandoning school-friends to snatch every possible moment with Winslet’s enigmatic Hanna Schmitz. Yet when Hanna leaves unexpectedly, Michael will not see her again for eight years, this time as a law student, when he is distraught to find his former lover as one of the accused at the trial of several female concentration camp guards.
If war films really aren’t your thing, then don’t be fooled. Of course, debates surrounding the Holocaust are fundamental as this plot unfolds. Issues of German culpability and the rebuilding of national identity are tackled intelligently, with an intense seminar discussion leading to one of Michael’s classmates proclaiming his revulsion at Germany’s older generations.
Yet with Michael’s revelation about Hanna’s departure providing its poignant climax, The Reader never loses sight of its central romance and is, essentially, a very human story of friendship and of growing up. Filled with subtle and sensitive performances, not least of all from Winslet, it definitely deserves all the praise that’s coming its way. Not flawless, but undeniably unique it is (and “I’m so sorry, Angelina”) certainly my must see this awards season!