The Reader an unusual, uncomfortable love story
flicks. know before you go
Some of the best works of fiction ask their audiences to walk a mile in a monster’s shoes. When this method works, it can be alarming how well those shoes fit. Stephen Daldry takes on just such a task in The Reader, a film that starts as a torrid romance and ends up as something quite different. I knew very little about the story going in, and I was surprised at where it took me; if you’d like to experience it the same way, you’d do well to stop reading now. The film opens in Germany after World War II with a May-September romance between 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) and older, darker Hanna (Kate Winslet), about whom the young man knows very little. She loves sex, and she loves to be read to; beyond that, theirs is a quiet sort of affair, and Hanna an intensely private lover. The film follows their relationship over the course of a summer, until it succumbs to the expected difficulties (Michael is, after all, about half his girlfriend’s age). It then fast-forwards several years, when Michael is in law school and has long moved past his spring awakening. A twist of fate finds him in the gallery to witness a blockbuster trial, one at which Hanna is among the defendants. It’s revealed that before she met Michael, his lover had been a guard in a Nazi prison camp, and directly culpable for the deaths of approximately 300 people.
How does Michael reconcile his memory of the woman he loved with the detestable details of Hanna’s crimes? This question occupies the remainder of the film, and it’s one that doesn’t prove easy for the characters or the viewer. Was that evil always in her, or was she simply a normal woman trapped on the wrong side of history? Does Michael, her only remaining friend, owe her anything, or do her heinous acts absolve him of any responsibility to her? The Reader doesn’t demand you answer in a particular way, but it does cause you to ask. And it reveals that this moment, not the sexual relationship, is the one that marks Michael’s coming of age. Screenwriter David Hare, adapting a novel by Bernhard Schlink, doesn’t excuse Hanna. But watching Michael come to terms will keep your attention, and I think the film’s resolution hits the right notes. It’s difficult material that, through its construction, robs the audience of a comfortable moral high ground, but it does so to serve a larger purpose. The film only has a few missteps. Kross is quite good as the young Michael, but the character is played in adulthood by a mummified Ralph Fiennes, who feels stiff and unnatural by comparison. Also, though the story takes place over Michael’s lifetime, he’s only played by two actors; this fact requires you to believe that at some point, the baby-faced Kross ages into the body of the decidedly adult-looking Fiennes in about 15 years. It’s a jarring, unconvincing transition. The Reader’s make-up department does a better job aging Winslet, who turns in her second powerful performance of Oscar season. Her portrayal of Hanna is excellent and consistent, an achievement given how the viewer’s perception of the character changes. When the big reveal comes, about an hour in, it explains her seclusion, and her guarded intensity, and reaffirms Winslet’s ability to play a character of multiple layers. The Holocaust has been the subject of plenty of films, so credit The Reader for examining it from a different angle. The crime is no less horrific, but the film seeks to understand it by glancing into the mind of one of its perpetrators. It takes a delicate touch to pull it off, and Daldry, a veteran theater director, proves equal to the task.