Sex, texts and redemption

Image of Nigel Andrews

The Reader (Stephen Daldry)
Che Part One (Steven Soderbergh)
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Sam Peckinpah)

Eternity looks down on human history and tries to adjudicate between two summations. Should it be “Time heals all wounds”? Or should it be Groucho Marx’s slyer, spryer “Time wounds all heels”? Does a merciless justice prevail, as decades go by, or the curative balm of time’s passing?

When Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader was published, digging back into German history with its tale (part-autobiographical) of a boy’s postwar affair with an older woman later learnt to have been an SS guard at Auschwitz, the impact was swift and wide. The novel stomped across bestseller lists. Hands-across-the- Holocaust love stories had been told before, on screen notably in The Night Porter, but The Reader was a direct, even evangelistic, text about the possibility of redemption for those thought by some irredeemable.

Sex and sermon. Passion and message. The book’s sometimes awkward mixture is the movie’s too, although director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare battle bravely, for the film’s first half, against artistic bipolarity. Every scene featuring Kate Winslet (pictured, with David Kross), in a superb performance, has the pulse of life as she brings a wounded particularity to Hanna, the Berlin tram conductor first met tending, later bedding, a schoolboy rescued from a fit of illness on the streets. Michael (played with a gauche, vivid likeability by the German actor David Kross) makes love, makes chat and betweenwhiles makes Hanna’s day, amid the coital sheets, by reading aloud from his school-text stories (Homer, Mark Twain, Chekhov).

With hindsight, after the film has jumped years to the war-trial scenes and Michael’s doors of perception have swung open to Hanna’s guilt, we can re-interpret even Winslet’s physical movements, slow and deliberated, in the film’s first part. Her body seems retarded by the ache of a past moral numbness, of a culpability she is ill-equipped or unequipped to avow. She is – and here the reading-aloud rituals that punctuate Schlink’s story tell their own tale of Hanna’s tragic flaw – morally as well lexically illiterate.

Is that an exculpation of evil? Or merely an excuse? The film sets out to track the scent of guilt to its lair, the human heart, and to re-map the verities of crime and innocence. Yet as soon as this new agenda begins – such are the hazards of the didactic – life and spontaneity start exiting the screen. When Ralph Fiennes, as the older Michael, takes the baton from Kross, the handover is fumbled. “This isn’t even the same character!” we think. One moment he was a kid with Galahad glow and out-there pout. Ten years later he is creepy-lovable Ralph, with his sly, evasive lips and air of hibernated timelessness. Even allowing for our hero’s traumas of disenchantment, this is a bit much. Poor Fiennes must glide about mopping up plot points and finally interfacing with a decade-older Winslet, now wearing old-crone slap.

Was it unfilmable, the moral-spiritual sleuthing of this story’s second half? If so, did that realisation make Daldry pour music over the film as if someone had forgotten to say “when”? I wanted to throw each piano from a high window. The still, sad music of humanity – surely that should have been The Reader’s score. We hear it in Winslet’s performance at least, at once contained and tremendous, at once filigree in touch and fully wrought in thought and being.

The heartthrob guerrilla hero has come down off the poster and on to a movie screen. Better late than never, this pietà combined with resurrection? Or better never than late? Brought to life in a four-hour, two-part biopic – after his years of gazing liquid-eyed from the walls of student bedsits – Ernesto “Che” Guevara takes a risk with his mystique. The first part of Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious diptych is a crash-course narrative of the conquest of Cuba, interspersed with black-and-white flash-forwards to Che’s ambassadorial visit to New York in 1964 to address the UN. The ’64 scenes mix images of the real and dramatised Guevara, played by Benicio Del Toro with staring eyes, beard, fiery tongue and the sense of a terrestrial actor valiantly but vainly pursuing an ethereal myth.

For a supposed labour of love – nursed by Soderbergh through many false starts and frustrations – the finished film seems more labour than love. (Part two, seen at Cannes, is better but still not the radical-transcendental biopic we hoped for.) In Cuba we chug strenuously from battle to battle, mountain to mountain, the push on Havana punctuated with power pow-wows in overnight encampments. Fidel Castro is played with a mimic’s virtuosity, but no human depth, by Demián Bichir. The director and his cameraman “Peter Andrews” – open secret: they are one and the same – film with élan in the toughest terrains. Che is a heroic guerrilla project in its way. It’s just that these guerrillas get lost in a mist of opaque purpose and ill-defined movie mission.

Revival of the week is Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. In a death- and-revenge drama wreathed in surreal moments, the director Sam Peckinpah sends the actor Warren Oates to Mexico on a bounty mission. He must bring back the head of the man who deflowered the daughter of Oates’s fat-cat Hispanic paymaster. Oates returns with the head on his car’s back seat, a head that talks (or seems to) through the sacking. Horrors are promised; worse horrors are realised. The film makes Peckinpah’s early benchmark essay in violence, The Wild Bunch, seem a mild stroll in an abattoir. There are wit, humanity and anguish as well as mayhem. If someone had to modernise the great traditions of Jacobean melodrama, Peckinpah was surely the man.

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