- Director:Stephen Daldry
- Cast:Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Kate Winslet
- Release Date:February 19, 2009
- Running time:124 minutes
- Film Worth:$12.00
- FILMINK rates movies out of $20 - the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
No one going into The Reader should be under the illusion that it's some kind of redemptive saga - this is one unhappy movie. Shot by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges (masters at sculpting light in a way that sums up a whole way of life in a bare moment of screen time), The Reader's basic "look" is enough to fill an optimistic viewer with dread; it's so bled dry of colour that it looks like the sun has been turned off. Even the actors' faces look lined and pale and unhealthy. But then, at one level, this is a movie about a kind of ugliness, and director Stephen Daldry doesn't want you to forget it. His technique is the cinematic equivalent of a fist banging on a table.
The Reader is also the kind of movie where characters gaze significantly out of windows to signal that they have something weighty on their mind. In this particular case, the sad eyes and the tortured mind belong to Ralph Fiennes. The year is 1995. His name is Michael, he's German, and he's in his mid-forties. As he ponders the view, his mind (we assume) and the movie itself flashes back to 1955, and to the first time that he met Hanna, played by Kate Winslet. Michael (in these sequences played by young newcomer David Kross) is a horny, fifteen-year-old schoolboy. Hanna is thirty-something, very beautiful, and seemingly just as horny, in her own way. She seduces the boy, who is an unsurprisingly willing participant. Still, Hanna is not easy to be around. Her mouth seems caught in a kind of perpetual frown, and her voice has the dark, hard edge that seems constructed to belt out orders rather than coo sweet nothings.
Their trysts settle into a routine; he reads to her, and then they make love. After a time, they break up. Michael is devastated, and too young to understand need and lust or perhaps the desire to be alone. The next time that Michael lays eyes on Hanna, it is some years later. He's a law graduate and Hanna is on trial for mass murder. It seems that she was a concentration camp guard, and an allegedly willing participant in Nazi horror. Michael's graduate class is using Hanna's trial as a vehicle to contemplate the ethics, morals and collective guilt of the German people in the face of the Holocaust. Michael hears that Hanna had concentration camp prisoners read to her. He also realises (in a conceit that is eloquently poetic and somewhat hard to accept) that Hanna was and remains illiterate. It turns out that he can save her from a harsh judgement, but is too ashamed to admit their affair to anyone. In the end, it is the middle aged Michael who must carry the burden of all this. Ralph Fiennes' blank hardness is put to good use here; he conveys a hurt so strong with just a flicker of the eye that we understand that it will die with him.
If there is something strong and essential and deep about The Reader, it lies with Kate Winslet. It's certainly not in its gloomy style and sense of importance. Screenwriter David Hare (Plenty, Wetherby) and director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) appear to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the themes and ideas being stroked here. This is a movie where characters contemplate in lengthy dialogue scenes, the paralysing notion of mass genocide - only for the movie to move onto another turn in a plot that keeps boxing and beating its characters up. Yet in Winslet's characterisation, the movie finds itself. She is dark, mysterious and always human. Where the other performances seem a little actorly (especially Bruno Ganz's law professor) or glib (Lena Olin's turn as a hard-boiled Holocaust survivor is grating), Winslet's control, and her sense of being (as opposed to acting) is staggering. It's not at all surprising that it's the film's nude scenes that have received the lion's share of the pre-release attention. They are so far from the smooth elegance of soft porn in their fleshy, pimply tenderness, however, that they're the most soulful, unaffected thing in the movie.
It is the trial and post-trial scenes, however, where Winslet's talent seems to climb into scary territory. Here is an actor who has to play incomprehension, in the face of murder, and not guilt. Winslet makes such a distasteful and hard thing to accept human. Still, it must be said that this movie is not about "a sad Nazi". As Hanna says, "The dead are still dead". Implicit in this is the idea that the guilty must pay as they always must. Based on the German novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader is all about secrets and lies and the possibility that monstrous actions are not a function of something called Evil, but something messier, stranger and more common to all. This is chilling stuff, and The Reader works in the end because this idea clings to you like a bad dream.