Movie Review: The Reader (2008)

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader

Photo: The Weinstein Co.

I liked The Reader very much — perhaps more than it deserves — and while tonally it is quite similar to two other films I saw in the same week (Revolutionary Road and Doubt) there is something about it I found uniquely fascinating. All three of the just mentioned films are very similar in their moral ambiguities, but with The Reader it was both touching as well as intellectually stimulating. The film suffers from pacing issues and a bloated sense of its own (occasionally misguided) message, but I found myself consistently challenged throughout. Even while the pace dipped up and down I couldn’t help but keep my thoughts racing on a rather unique look at the aftermath of World War II.

The film opens in 1995 as Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) coldly speaks with what appears to be a one night stand. Michael comes off as solemn and unhappy in his life and we quickly realize the source of his misery will become the film’s backbone. The scene shifts back in time to 1958 with a 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) sick in a streetcar and ultimately vomiting in a side alley when he is found by Hanna (Kate Winslet) a woman twice his age. She washes away the pavement and takes him to her apartment to clean him up and send him on his way.

Once Michael’s health improves he returns to thank Hanna for her kindness and it is here that a love affair ensues. The affair becomes an artfully played out group of scenes involving sex, conversation, but most importantly reading. Hanna pacts with Michael that first must come the stories and then comes the sex. He reads to her the books he is studying in school and others he finds at the library. These scenes and their relationship are certainly intriguing, but director Stephen Daldry sticks with it for far too long ultimately slowing the feature down needlessly when the point of the story is yet to come.

The affair ends after eight months or so as Hanna mysteriously disappears, but she will re-enter Michael’s life two years later as we meet him now as a law school student and his classmates set out to observe a Nazi war crime trial. You can imagine Michael’s surprise when he learns of the several women on trial one of them turns out to be Hanna. There is an instant moment of extreme emotional connection as David Kross plays the scene perfectly and we begin to learn more and more about Hanna simply through the eyes of Kate Winslet. This film is one of Winslet’s finest and certainly her best performance of 2008. What follows is best left unsaid and something you should learn for yourself, and don’t worry I haven’t spoiled a thing for you.

While the emotional connection between Hanna and Michael is powerful, there is more to this film than an underage affair. The film asks the audience to perhaps take pity on a Holocaust death-camp guard. It’s an unfathomable idea and while you never actually find yourself believing what Hanna did was right (and how could you?) you will allow for moments of understanding, at least with her decision making from her perspective. I say this, of course, trying to keep my cards closely guarded and not spoil anything for you, don’t for an instant believe I think anything that happened during the Holocaust is forgivable, but do not be surprised if just for the slightest of moments you look upon Hanna’s face and find yourself experiencing a brief lapse of sympathy.

Of course, much of your emotional connection to the film is all due to the great performances by both Winslet and Kross as each of them have put together a pair of well defined characters. Kross only gets better as the story goes on while Winslet becomes the story’s narrative devise. However, the film has issues when it tries to become more than it actually is, which is where Ralph Fiennes comes in with a throwaway role if there ever was one. One friend suggested the film would have been much better if he hadn’t even been in it and I find it hard to argue with that opinion.

Fiennes is given virtually nothing to do other than play out the story’s final moments outside of a small group of flash-forward looks into the future that only take you out of the moment. Even when you think it is all going to pay off Daldry keeps the story moving for about ten minutes beyond when it should have ended as he never seemed to want to let go of the story as he tries to tie the past to the future in ways that just don’t justify their existence.

The Reader is a beautiful film with extravagant production design from Brigitte Broch, breathtaking cinematography from Chris Menges and Roger Deakins and a delicate score by Nico Muhly. While the story being told does get too big for its own good the primary theme remains as we get a look at Germans dealing directly with their history in legal and emotional ways as several contradictory opinions are brought to the table and some are explored and others are ignored. This is the part of the film I found so fascinating and the glossy texture making a trying time look better than it should is what kept me from feeling too dirty as a woman takes advantage of a young boy twice her age and then goes on to bring about even worse atrocities.

Considering the abundance of World War II films nowadays it is nice to see a slight change in approach, but I think we are getting close to reaching the end of the audience’s tether. Especially since we are now talking about a film that could potentially be deemed as sympathetic toward a historical disaster, something I am sure many would regard as unconscionable no matter how intellectually stimulating.

SIDE BAR: If anyone knows of or can recommend other films involving the generation of Germans following the Holocaust and dealing with the aftermath I would be interested to hear of any quality suggestions.



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