Post-WW2 Germany. Fifteen-year-old Michael (David Kross) is taken ill in the street and aided by Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a quiet woman twice his age.
Later, fully recovered, he returns and they begin an affair – all penetration and no conversation for Hannah refuses to speak of her past.
He does read to her, however, and the pair grow close. Then she disappears from his life… only to return eight years later in circumstances both unexpected and horrific.
Based on Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel, both celebrated and controversial, this thorny drama is everything you’d expect a brought-to-the-screen-by-David-Hare-and-Stephen-Daldry adaptation to be: considered, articulate, intelligent, so selfconsciously classy it borders on glassy.
Yet while the poised, silky visuals work a little too hard to reflect the film’s literary pedigree, there’s no denying the force of the material or the performances.
Winslet, of course, is a given, Hannah being the exact kind of intricate, challenging ‘heroine’ she gravitates towards again and again.
A working-class German accent? Sure. Fractured psyche conveyed with subtlety, not histrionics? Done. Copious nudity, paedophilia and Nazi war crimes? Er, you bet.
A faultless turn, Winslet’s biggest rival for Best Actress 2009 comes from that blonde playing April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road. But the real surprise is the fact that Winslet’s precise performance is matched every way up by Kross.
The 18-year-old German actor manages to convey love, lust and torment with barely a twitch of his fresh, open face. Together they fashion a relationship of virtue and love, and it’s these early scenes as much as anything that retain viewers’ sympathy when the going gets tough.
Get past the actors speaking and reading in English while the street signs are in German, and you’ll be embroiled in a complex, compelling drama.