Kate Winslet finally won an Oscar for her role as an illiterate, ex-concentration camp guard in this worthy but rather depressing film. The cynics amongst us might snipe that it took a Holocaust movie to achieve this for her, but the story being told here portrays her as a very small cog in a terrible machine whose fate is writ large for all the wrong reasons. That aside, she gives a relatively brave performance as the flawed heroine of this film, casually displaying her naked mature body (this is nothing new for Winslet) and daring to look plain and old in the later scenes. It's not quite a case of Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose, but the award is probably as much for her appearance as her genuine acting skills.
The credentials of this movie are outstanding. Directed by Stephen Daldry with a script from playwright David Hare (based on a slim German novella) with cinematography from award-winning Roger Deakins, most of the cast are in fact German, with the notable exception of the two leads -- Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. The best actor however is probably young David Kross who plays the 15-year old schoolboy who begins an intense sexual relationship with the thirty-something bus conductress in exchange for readings from great and popular literature. She disappears from his life when a possible promotion at work to an office job threatens to reveal her illiteracy, but the loss of his first love affects the balance of the boy's life.
He sees her again when, as a law student, he attends a trial of six women accused of war crimes -- allowing 300 prisoners in their command to die in a locked and burning church. There is some discussion as to which of them was responsible for the written report attempting to exonerate their actions and the other knowing biddies accuse Winslet. Rather than admit that she was incapable of writing such a letter, Winslet accepts the blame and is given the most severe sentence. While her ex-lover could have given evidence to save her, he does not do so and allows his guilt to taint the remainder of his own life.
How this warm young man could mature into Ralph Fiennes is something of a mystery, since although Fiennes is a consummate actor, his persona comes across as cold as ice -- a million miles from the conflicted young Kross. To compensate for his cowardice, Fiennes begins to send tapes to her prison and over the next twentyish years she teaches herself to read and write. There is only one brief reunion, just before she is due to be released from gaol, but this does not allow either character to find their sought redemption -- and indeed there is no happy ending to come.
The film moves about in various time frames between 1955 and 1995 in a rather willy-nilly fashion adding little to the story being revealed and, if anything, rather muddying the waters. This is really a movie about how the past impacts on the present and the holocaust theme and the would-be collective guilt of the German people are really sidebars to the tale of two damaged souls.