THE READER * * * *
Cert 15 124 mins
After releasing four films in 2006, Kate Winslet took a lengthy sabbatical, the narration for The Fox & The Child her only credit during the past two years. She now returns with a vengeance with two award-magnet performances in the same month.
She’s already received Golden Globe nominations as Best Actress for Revolution Road and now (unfathomably, given her’s is the central role), Best Supporting Actress for David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s bestseller. Directed with steely assurance and a strong European sensibility by Stephen Daldry, this could well be the one to see her finally take home the Oscar.
It opens in 1958 West Germany as middle-class 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (David Kross) is taken ill with scarlet fever symptoms. He’s found by Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), a thirtysomething tram conductor who helps him back home.
When Michael recovers, he seeks her out to say thank-you and soon finds himself paying regular visits to her flat for both a sentimental and sexual education. Their physical relationship is intensified as Hanna requests Michael read to her (often in a shared bath) as a sort of literary foreplay to their couplings, passages from The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn and, after an initial expression of disgust, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all stimulating an erotic charge.
Then one day he finds her gone, vanished without explanation or trace. Cut to 1966 and, now a law student, Michael and his class are taken by their professor (Bruno Ganz) to observe a war crimes trial. He’s stunned to see Hanna in the dock – one of five former SS concentration camp guards and accused of being responsible for 300 Jewish women burning to death in a church.
He says nothing of their connection, but as the evidence unfolds, realises he has information that could affect her defence. The question is whether resentment at being abandoned, revulsion at her deeds and the fear and shame of being associated with her will prevent him from speaking out.
With Ralph Fiennes as the older, emotionally locked-in incarnation of Michael, a divorced lawyer struggling to reconcile his feelings for the imprisoned Hanna as her parole draws near, Daldry does full justice to Schlink’s provocative analogy for the struggle of Germany’s post war generation to reconcile the need for understanding and forgiveness with shame about their parents’ accountability in the Holocaust.
Strikingly photographed by both Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, it’s as intellectually rigorous as it is sexually and emotionally intense, tempering sympathy with repugnance while arguing a difficult non-judgemental case for compassion, remorse and redemption.
Both Fiennes and newcomer Kross are tremendous, but this is Winslet’s film, delivering an indelible portrait of a haunted, lonely figure, partly unrepentant about doing her job, partly consumed by the need for some kind of atonement.
“The dead are still dead,” she tells the court.
It’s the ghosts of the living to whom the film seeks to bring peace.
CHE: THE ARGENTINE * *
Cert 15 126 mins Subtitled
Based on Guevera’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, part one of Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour epic hagiography of the iconic poster boy guerrilla charts events from a 1955 meeting with Castro brothers Fidel and Raul (Demian Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro) in Mexico City through to January 1959’s overthrow of Cuba’s US-supported dictator Batista.
Intercut with black and white scenes of his 1964 New York visit to address the United Nations, if you want an academic primer on Marxist-Leninist dogma, the mechanics of running a revolution, and how democratic decisions inevitably give way to an autocratic system, then this ambitious affair will certainly satisfy.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for Lawrence of Arabia style sweep or psychological insight into how an asthmatic doctor came to be an inspirational leader of men, you’re going to be disappointed.
A convincing looking Guevera, Benicio Del Toro delivers a solid, intense performance, but Soderbergh’s determination to offer a neutral portrait of the man rather than the legend keeps him at a distance from emotional engagement.
There’s no rounded characterisation to Che or his comrades (Catalina Sandino Moreno as future second wife Aleida among them) and while the last act’s street by street battle for Santa Clara finally shows a pulse of excitement, the bulk of the “action” revolves around clinical battles and interminable coughing fit marches through wet Cuban jungle.
Intelligently fastidious but dramatically arid, it’s close but no Cuban cigar.
SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELLING PANTS 2 * * *
Cert 12A 119 mins
Three years ago, four best friends discovered a pair of jeans that miraculously fit them all.
That summer, each wore them for a week at a time before passing them on along with details of how their lives had changed during that time.
Now, they’re in their early twenties and, once again, apart for the summer and playing round robin with the well travelled pants.
Heartbroken to find the Greek boy (Michael Rady) she fell in love with in the original movie has married, Lena (Alexis Bledel) is taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design and becoming attracted to life model Leo (Jesse Williams).
During an archaeological dig in Turkey, Bridget (Blake Lively) has an epiphany about family, flies home to visit the grandmother (Blythe Danner) she’s not seen in years and learns the truth behind her mother’s suicide.
Having finally gone to bed with boyfriend Brian (Leonardo Nam), film student Tibby (Amber Tamblyn) is faced with a pregnancy scare and commitment issues. And, finally, having followed Yale chum Julia to theatre school in Vermont, confidence challenged Carmen (Ugly Betty’s America Ferrara) is astonished to find herself as the lead in The Winter’s Tale and falling for Ian (Tom Wisdom), the Brit drama student who dragged her in to audition.
Following the same structure as the first film, each storyline takes its turn in the spotlight as individual emotional arcs from youth to adulthood are traversed and the girls learn lessons about friendship, romance, family and themselves, before a somewhat contrived last act brings them all together in Greece, searching for lost denims and misplaced love.
Awash with romantic cliches, but, built around charismatic lived in performances and four characters for whom you genuinely care, it’s Sex And The City for twentysomethings but full of heart rather than cynicism.