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.
“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.”