The Reader, a film based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Bernhard Schlink, takes place in a post-war Germany and centers around Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an illiterate woman who sleeps with a teenage boy (David Kross) whom she asks to read to her before and after sex. Eventually, the boy grows up and encounters Hanna again when she is on trial for war crimes. The subject matter and plot shift from a story of sexual awakening to a courtroom drama is tiring to some critics, although they agree that Winslet gives an excellent performance. A collection of reviews, after the jump.
Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) has intelligently adapted Bernhard Schlink's novel set in post-World War II Germany. Though the effort is uneven, it's a well-acted romance that becomes a less compelling courtroom drama.
Together, he and Winslet give the movie whatever emotional weight and meaning it has. You can't read anything about Winslet without coming across a reference to her willingness to take her clothes off, and too often when I read that stuff, I get the sense that many of the media gossipmongers hold that against her even as they pretend to applaud it. But Winslet doesn't just show off her body; she exposes herself in other ways. And what she does isn't easy, particularly in a movie climate where actresses are extremely canny about how much they withhold. I've never seen a Winslet performance (not even the frustrating one she gave in "Titanic," a movie I otherwise loathe) that came off as just a career-slash-business decision. All actors have to make money, and they choose roles for all different personal and financial reasons. But whatever Winslet's reasons may be, whenever she takes a role she peels back more layers, she gives more, than most other actresses do. As Hanna, she's a woman who refuses to allow herself to be tender, as if she were performing a self-imposed penance. She's also unself-pitying, sexually bold and insecure about her own intellect. Winslet wraps all of those ideas into one character, without needing to wave them around like brightly colored flags. Even the way she walks — vaguely heavy-footed, as if she's not sure she deserves to tread the earth — is a subtle choice.
And when she appears nude, there's not a shred of vanity in the way she does so. The movie's cinematographers — the killer duo of Roger Deakins and Chris Menges — use a palette that includes lots of naturalistic light, which makes Winslet's curves look realistic and vital, not like soft-focus art projects. "The Reader" comes off as a movie that doggedly follows some dull, preordained text. It's Winslet who dares to read between the lines.
Although the commercial imperatives that drive a movie like this one are understandable — the novel was a best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for starters — you have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.
The whole film, in fact, with its loping pace and plaintive score, feels like a woefully polite, not to say British, take on a foreign horror; was there really no one, from the fierce new wave of German filmmakers, prepared to dramatize the Schlink? Or did they feel, as I did, that it was pernicious from the start—a low-grade musing on atrocity, garnished with erotic titillation? Imprisoned for life, Hanna must read to herself, but are we really supposed to be moved by the thought—or now, in Daldry’s film, by the sight—of an unrepentant Nazi parsing Chekhov? That is not culturally nourishing; it is morally famished. There is a fine scene, near the end, when a survivor of Hanna’s crimes (the great Lena Olin) tells the middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) that “nothing came out of the camps,” that they “weren’t therapy.” Quite true, so why has the film pretended otherwise?
Thankfully, Kate Winslet bares not just her body but her soul with a performance that pierces the genteel polish of this high-minded awards-season drama.
As the central figure in this adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel, Winslet is in the nearly impossible position of trying to make us feel sympathy for a former Nazi concentration camp guard — but, being an actress of great range and depth, she very nearly pulls off that feat completely. What holds her and the film back from greatness is the oversimplification of imagery and symbolism that emerges as "The Reader" progresses, as it morphs from an invigorating love story to a rather conventional courtroom drama.
This is not to say that the performances of Ms. Winslet, Mr. Kross and Mr. Fiennes are anything less than convincingly heartfelt. This is especially true of Ms. Winslet, who is appearing later this month in Revolutionary Road, directed by husband Sam Mendes and adapted from the much-admired novel by Richard Yates. Ms. Winslet is to be reunited with Leonardo DiCaprio for the first time since they made box-office history together in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), after she made her sparkling debut at 19 in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994). She has never been adequately appreciated for all of her strikingly offbeat performances, but now her time may have come at last.
But by this point, “The Reader” has shown itself to be so emotionally constipated — not to mention unable to seriously address the Holocaust — that there’s nothing compelling about these two characters or their stories. As one character points out toward the end, “If you want catharsis, look in literature; don’t look in the camps.” It’s advice that Daldry should have followed, since his movie certainly adds nothing to seemingly boundless explorations of this subject.
Most of the cast comes off as twitchy and cantankerous, although Kross makes for a compelling teenager in love (he’s less convincing as a young adult law student) and the great Bruno Ganz livens up his few scenes as Michael’s law professor.
"The Reader" is not about the horrors of the "final solution." It's about how Michael deals with the fact that the great first love of his life was implicated in these atrocities. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael in middle age— a parched, solitary man of the law whose unusual relationship with the older Hanna raises questions about his own moral compass. "The Reader" can feel stilted and abstract: the film's only flesh-and-blood characters spend half the movie separated. But its emotional impact sneaks up on you. "The Reader" asks tough questions, and, to its credit, provides no easy answers.
In a curious way, though, much of this is superfluous to the movie as a movie. The story dares to hint at a certain smugness in the attitudes of its victims, which is something we are not at all used to in movies of this kind. And as a romance, at times feverish and other times grim, the film works surprisingly well. There's something gripping about the relationship between this ill-assorted pair, and something touching about the way events beyond their control or understanding reach out to blight their lives.
'The Reader' opens in limited theaters today.