Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for nudity, sexuality and adult themes
Run Time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Stephen Daldry constructs a tightly wound drama with drastic and historical implications.
Fifteen year-old German student Michael Berg (David Kross) is walking home from school when a fever overtakes him, forcing him into a dark alley doubled over in pain. A kind woman by the name of Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) comes to his aid and makes sure he finds his way safely back to his family. The diagnosis: scarlet fever and three months in bed. At the end of which Michael seeks out Hanna with flowers and gratitude.
That innocent gesture turns significant as the pair embark on a heated and illicit affair. Michael is besotted – his first woman – while Hanna appears willing but distant. The two find a lovely rhythm; languid love-making followed by hot baths and stretches of calm as Michael reads aloud from the classics (Homer’s Odyssey, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc). Hanna can’t get enough of their literary sessions, repeatedly insisting on more.
Michael is consumed with lust and neglects his family and his teenage friends. When Hanna is offered a promotion in another city she disappears without a fare thee well.
Fast forward eight years to Heidelberg Law School circa 1966. Young Michael studies law and is afforded the opportunity to sit in on a Nazi war crime trial. The defendant: Hanna Schmitz, one and the same, a former SS guard stationed at Auschwitz and accused of contributing to the murders of three hundred innocent women and children.
In Daldry’s capable hands every event is pregnant with meaning; the implications of the affair, the incessant lies and the weighty spectacle of classic courtroom drama. Not to mention a dark secret that could permanently alter the trajectory of Hanna’s future.
The narrative flashes forward and back, with Ralph Fiennes filling in as the adult Michael facing the consequences of his philosophical choices and how they affected his life. Winslet is heartbreaking but Kross is a true revelation as he ages from love struck innocent to jaded, and perhaps permanently scarred, manhood. All packaged with a smart script, palpable tension and enough ambiguity to keep you guessing.