British theater and film director Stephen Daldry certainly knows how to bring out the best in actresses. Nicole Kidman won the best actress Oscar for “The Hours” in 2002, and Kate Winslet picked up the coveted statuette this year for her portrayal of a former concentration camp worker in “The Reader.”
Based on the controversial 1995 best-seller by German author Bernhard Schlink, “The Reader” tells the story of a young German boy (David Kross) who has an affair with an older German woman (Winslet) in 1950s Germany. Years later, the young man – now a lawyer (Ralph Fiennes) – is shocked to see the woman in court being tried for complicity in the murder of concentration camp victims.
“It’s a love story with a huge moral complexity to it,” said Daldry, 48, making his first visit to Japan in 16 years. “It points the finger at a whole generation. In 1950s and 1960s Germany, there was a veil of silence because people were realizing that everyone around them was involved in a criminal state. How do you put millions and millions of people on trial? I mean, 8,000 people worked at Auschwitz. I’ve lived in Germany and what is astonishing for me is the lack of mea culpa. I have met a number of people who I would describe as war criminals and they defend themselves, even when they are mass murderers.”
Daldry said he was grabbed by the story when he first read the book. “My good friend Anthony Minghella had the film rights to it, along with Sydney Pollack, and I tried to persuade him to let me make it. He wanted to make it but relented. While we were shooting, sadly, both Anthony and Sydney died.”
Casting the German boy was a challenge. Eventually, 17-year-old David Kross was chosen by Daldry’s German casting directors. “We had to wait until he was 18 before we could shoot the sex scenes to avoid the risk of child pornography charges. In some U.S. states, there is no distinction between 6 and 17 years old. David was very nervous about the love scenes but Kate was good with him.”
Daldry said he was very pleased when Winslet won the Oscar (he himself was nominated for best director, just as he was with his other two films, “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot”). “The hard part for Kate is that her character is perceived through the eyes of other people. She couldn't draw on anything in her own life to help her. I think it was one of the most emotionally challenging parts she had to play,” Daldry said.
“Actresses like Kate and Nicole Kidman are very trusting of directors, which is a big help," he added. "We hang around together and that helps us get a proper relationship going.”
In addition to getting the best out of actresses, Daldry has also shown himself quite skilled at bringing complex books, such as “The Hours” and “The Reader,” to the big screen. “While both those books are complicated in their thematic landscape, in terms of narrative structure, they are not that complicated. You just have to be clear what the issues are," he said. "Illiteracy is another strong theme of ‘The Reader.’ How can this woman believe that the shame of being illiterate is bigger than the shame of killing all these people. It’s a moral illiteracy. What is the relationship between moral values and literacy? Through gaining literacy during her time in prison, does she come to a moral understanding? And the answer is no.”
Besides the critical acclaim he has got for “The Reader,” Daldry has been enjoying the success of the "Billy Elliot" stage musical, which he directed, and which recently won 10 Tony awards in the U.S. “It’s due to the cast. I was thrilled that the boys won. With all that and the Oscars, I’ve been to 24 award shows since Christmas.”
“The Reader” opens in Japan on June 19.© Japan Today