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The Reader

(2008)

Directed by

Stephen Daldry

 The Reader Poster

Review by Todd Plucknett

 

The Reader is the fourth film released in 2008 that I have seen about the Holocaust (Defiance, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and The Counterfeiters being the others). This film has been the most highly touted and rewarded of the four, but probably just slides into the second-best range, behind the Edward Zwick thrill ride Defiance. The Reader is a movie of incredible characters and incredible flaws. It is directed by now three-time nominee Stephen Daldry. It is a fascinating story based on the widely popular book by Bernhard Schlink. I cannot totally agree with the status that it has gained, but I can understand it.

The film centers on two characters. Michael Berg is presented as a 15 year old student (David Kross) and as an adult several years later (Ralph Fiennes). As a child, he had a passionate summer-long affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a woman in her mid 30s who helped him when he was ill one day. The entire time you know she is holding something back, which is evident in a key scene on a train I which she acts as if she has no idea who Michael is. This really upsets him, and he is always trying to break through her shell to see exactly what is bothering her. Their affair is not a typical one. Every time he comes to her place, she makes him read books to her, because she loves the sound of his reading voice, and she always prefers to be read to. After reading sessions, they have sex. It is never the other way around. One day, however, Hanna disappears. There was nothing left behind to indicate where she went, and Michael is left heartbroken. Nearly a decade later, Michael is a law student, and he suddenly and unexpectedly finds Hanna in the most shocking and unfortunate of circumstances. What unfolds is intricately detailed, and the revelations are incredibly surprising and absorbing.

The film is carried by the always astonishing Kate Winslet’s lead performance. She is absolutely believable as Hanna, and she creates sympathy in ways that are completely unanticipated. She is the most daring actress out there, and she became this woman. At last, she is probably going to win her long-deserved Oscar after several failed attempts. David Kross shows that he is a talent to watch in the coming years. He completely jumps into this role, and he is actually able to hold his own with Winslet. I can’t wait to see where he goes next. Ralph Fiennes was superb in his crucial role as the older Michael. There are not five better actors working today than him. He has had one amazing year. Leno Olin also gives a powerful turn in the last part of the film, and it is always good to see Bruno Ganz on screen. The acting is really what what could have been an incredibly contrived film.

There are several problems that I had with this film, however. First of all, Michael, in the second half of the film, states that their affair only lasted for one summer, making it seem incredibly short. Why was half of the film dedicated to this romance then? It should have been a much smaller portion, to really stress the brevity of the relationship. Michael only remembers choice glimpses of their time together, yet so much emphasis is placed on that one summer. I always prefer it when the audience has roughly the same recollections as the characters in the film. Maybe that is something small, but it at least bothered me, especially because the first half of the film got quite repetitive. In addition, while the plot twist in the middle of the film that is really holding everything together is quite startling, it is also extremely flimsy. That truth would have come up at several points in the film and in scenes not shown. It really only creates questions that are left unanswered by the film. Also, the scene that was supposed to devastate the audience really did not work on me. Furthermore, the film reduces itself in the conclusion to a very formulaic melodrama. How many times have we seen the guilt of one man driving him to reconcile with someone for events that happened long in the past? I felt like I had seen those exact scenes before. At least Fiennes was in them, I guess.

Nevertheless, for reasons I cannot really explain, when the movie ends, I felt nothing but gratitude and satisfaction. It really is a beautiful film, which is not something that one can normally say about a Holocaust film. The lighting and cinematography are gorgeous, and the score really adds to the overall effect of many scenes. It also has a very keen ear for literature, which is the driving force behind the film. Without its abundant presence throughout, the film would be missing much of its charm. The actual reading is what kept the film’s first half from falling apart. That is probably why the final act seemed like such a mess. The backbone of the film had been stripped away.

Overall, this film has enough good things that I can recommend it. What was it trying to say, though? It may have been trying to make the point that the Nazis were victims too. It may be something to do with how guilt affects people. It may be about the lasting impact that the whole ordeal had on the people of Germany and on their now grown children. It is not really certain what the film is really about, which makes it both frustrating and at the same time haunting. It asks moral questions that really leave you thinking, which is another reason why the audience will likely be mentally debating the film long after the credits roll. The director Stephen Daldry has only made three films, so when he actually does come out with one, it is like an event. While this is not on the same level as his masterpiece The Hours or his captivating Billy Elliot, it is still a worthy film. Best Picture nomination? Nah, but it is still a good film and a somewhat worthy addition to what is becoming a Holocaust library of film.

Rating:


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