How do you turn tasteless literature—Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 Holocaust novel, which “complicates” archetypes by making an illiterate, unrepentant Nazi into its central figure of pity—into tasteful, awards-season filmmaking? Streamline the ambiguity and go heavy on the steam. In 1958, 15-year-old Michael (Kross) has an affair with the much older Hanna (Winslet), only to learn years later—as a law student observing her trial—that she belonged to the SS. He knows a secret that will lessen her sentence but not exonerate her. What to do? The film obfuscates its own dubious morality by briefly noting that Hanna could never be absolved—but from a dramatic standpoint, she is, something director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare appallingly seal by pilfering their coda from Schindler’s List.
What was a literary exercise has become a virtuoso demonstration in shouted themes and chronological scrambling. (Many characters are played by two actors, with the notable exception of Hanna—the better to bait a Best Makeup nom.) As in The Hours, Daldry has a field day with crosscutting, particularly when the elder Michael (now Fiennes) happily empties his shelves to record books on tape for Hanna. Her face lights up and the inspirational music soars. That she helped murder 300 Jews is something the movie prefers we ignore.