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Fiennes Explores the Banality
of Evil in The Reader

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Melancholy Memories: Fiennes recalls an ill-fated affair in Stephen Daldry's latest adaptation.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

It was only 12 years ago that Anthony Minghella and Ralph Fiennes first collaborated on The English Patient. It was an endeavor that would earn Fiennes his second Oscar nomination (his first was for 1993’s Schindler’s List) and, for Minghella, who called it the greatest triumph of his career, the Academy’s best picture and director honors. 

Their second collaboration, this winter’s The Reader, has, to date, reached a more bittersweet end. Minghella died in March from complications arising from tonsil cancer. Yet his final production remains a rousing testament to the strength of his vision, and Fiennes appropriately remains his star.

“Anthony mentioned to me a long, long time ago when he first bought the rights to the book that I should read it, but he never got around to making it,” Fiennes says. “In the end, Stephen Daldry ended up directing, with Anthony on board as the producer. He may have talked about having me in it, but I’m sure he allowed Stephen to make that decision himself.”

Although Fiennes, 46, admits to being intrigued by German law professor Bernhard Schlink’s award-winning novel – he read it twice after Minghella, whom he describes as a man of “gentle humor and precision,” optioned it – he was more seduced by David Hare’s script. Hare, who previously adapted The Hours and Damage for the screen, captured Schlink’s story of a man forced to confront the Holocaust-era crimes committed by an ex-lover with a tenderness and conflicted grace Fiennes calls “amazing.” He agreed to star.

For his part, Daldry (also of The Hours) acknowledges there’s no shortage of movies that have attempted to recreate, on some small level, the horror millions endured at the hands of Nazi Germany. “There have been 252 films made about the Holocaust,” he says. “I hope there are at least as many more.” Still, he and Hare believe that “The Reader” will defy the expectations of those anticipating a conventional survivor’s story, just as Schlink’s controversial novel challenged (and, in some cases, infuriated) critics.

Fiennes agrees.

“I don’t know what that means, for something to be considered a Holocaust film,” he says with a hint of indignation. “It’s a human drama set against the background of the Second World War, and it’s about such a wide range of emotions – forgiveness, intimacy, growing up and facing who you are or being unable to face who you are. It’s a personal story, but I don’t see it as being historical at all.”

For Fiennes, who speaks with a deep, authoritative baritone and seems to approach interviews with much of the same intensity his brings to his roles, the thrill of acting lies in the complexity of his characters, whether he’s playing a wildly foul-mouthed gangster with a soft spot for children (as he did rather hilariously in last winter’s In Bruges) or a man struggling to accept that his first and possibly only real love (played with deliberate impenetrability by Kate Winslet) condemned hundreds of concentration camp prisoners to death.

“What do you do? He doesn’t know,” Fiennes says, voice rising. “He can’t connect with her anymore, and he begins to loathe her. Then he feels guilt about that, and there remains this lingering memory of the intimacy they shared that has never really left him.

“A lot of things go into my decisions to accept roles – a gut feeling, I suppose, based on the character and the script. In this case, I found this man’s internal crisis and the passion burning beneath his seemingly cold exterior to be quite moving.”

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