In a West German town at the end of the 1950s, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) starts a passionate affair with Hanna (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor more than twice his age. The relationship is sweet as well as sexually charged – Michael spends much of his time with Hanna reading aloud to her – but after a few months, Hanna suddenly disappears, and it’s almost a decade before Michael sees her again. By this time, he is a law student and she is standing trial for war crimes.
In adapting Bernhard Schlink’s much-loved novel, Stephen Billy Elliot Daldry and David Hare stay largely faithful to their source. The result is almost as subtle, and just as involving and more emotionally restrained than their last collaboration, 2003’s The Hours. Like the novel, the film is a Holocaust story, but the focus is less on the atrocities committed (which never appear on screen) than their emotional fallout and its devastating effect on generations of ordinary Germans. So the central performances hold the film together. Rising German star Kross neatly makes the transition from goofy lovesick teen to troubled law student, and Ralph Fiennes, who plays Michael as an adult, is suitably withdrawn; but it is Winslet who is the dark beating heart of the film. As Hanna, she balances brusque impassivity with desperate, inconsolable sadness, and gives a voice to the question at the heart of the story. When the judge at her trial lists her crimes, she makes no attempt to shy away from them, but instead asks him: ‘What would you have done?’ Blamelessness and the objectification of the guilt have rarely been better essayed.
General release from Fri 2 Jan.