The Reader is a very well-made film with excellent performances by its extraordinarily talented cast. Stephen Daldry once again proves that he's well on his way to becoming one of the finest directors of his generation. The film is also eager--a little too eager, I might add--to ask hard-hitting moral questions to a point that it feels like it's spoon feeding the audience with its questions instead of telling an emotionally satisfying story.
Unlike more impressive films that questions and tests its characters and audiences' morals, such as Letters From Iwo Jima and Schindler's List, The Reader lacks a warm, approachable core. Daldry, who is capable of directing intense, brutally honest scenes that showcase a wide range of character development, constantly keeps his audience at a cold, uncomfortable distance. Daldry's approach nearly works until I began to feel too little for the characters in the very final moments of the film. Then I realize that I've been on a long, hard journey with these characters--I do care for them, but not without difficulty. Daldry wants us to feel like we're eavesdropping but rarely do we go beyond film-watching. I was constantly part of an audience, but never a witness.
Based on a German novel by Bernhard Schlink, The Reader begins with a torrid, secret affair between a fifteen year old boy and a thirty six year old woman. In 1958, a fever-stricken Michael Berg (David Kross) fatefully encounters Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor. Hanna takes pity on the boy and helps him home. A few months later, Michael recovers and finds Hanna to thank her for her kindness. Michael, with his innocent, schoolboy crush on Hanna, is immediately seduced by her. Hanna takes advantage of Michael's obvious trust and infatuation to get sex and, strangely enough, literature. Michael eagerly agrees to this; he is simply teenage boy in love. Erotic sex scenes follow, but under Daldry's direction, they never feel too gratuitous.
When Hanna receives a promotion to work in the office due to excellent reviews, she leaves her tiny apartment and disappears.
Several years later, Michael is a law student, with the opportunity to observe a war-crime trial that was a result of a popular book written by one of the survivors. To Michael's complete and utter shock, Hanna is the star defendent of the trial. Hanna, along with several other middle-aged women, is charged with locking up a group of Jewish women in a church when the church was being bombed.
But Michael possesses a secret about Hanna that will change the outcome of the case. I will not reveal the secret since it seems to be central to the film's advertising, but it is a secret that Hannah is so ashamed of that she would rather die than have it revealed to the masses.
Like Hanna, Michael is ashamed too, but for something entirely different: He feels guilt for ever loving Hanna--a guard of a Nazi prison, a criminal.
Many years later, an unhappy, recently divorced, and middle-aged Michael (Ralph Fiennes) begins to come to terms with his relationship with Hanna. He still feels the lingering guilt for never summoning up the courage to help Hanna, so he begins to help Hanna in a way that he hopes can benefit her, even in prison.
But the fact that Michael never tries to persuade Hanna to reveal her secret--which would have definitely changed the outcome of her sentence--frustrates me to no end. I haven't been more angry with a film character since Rolf in The Sound of Music. This is where the spoon feeding starts: Would you convince a criminal to reveal her secret if it could help change the outcome of his or her sentence, even though you feel shame for sharing an inappropriate relationship with him or her many years ago? Michael chooses the easy path, the cowardly path. But wouldn't most people in Michael's position do the same thing? Perhaps. We never know what we'd really do in a situation until we're really in that particular situation. But whatever we decide, we have to face the consequences--whether it's guilt, shame, or regret.
A film as thought-provoking as The Reader should immediately considered a worthy film, right?
I'm honestly torn between whether I like this film or not. As I said before, The Reader is a well-made film. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins is superb. The score by Nico Mulhay is wonderfully effective and provides intensity and tension when needed. Daldry does a great job showing character development and even in the midst of the film's rather cold surface, there are several moving scenes but those scenes aren't enough to provide a lasting impact. But they do make me think.
I tend to exaggerate when it comes to good performances (at the moment, I'm rather ashamed to bring up any examples) but Winslet and Kross deliver spectacular performances. I don't think I've been more impressed by Winslet before, which actually makes me wonder where I've been for the past ten years. (I haven't seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind...yet.)
Hanna is unquestionably a flawed and despicable character, but when Michael finally discovers her secret, my heart broke for her, even though I knew it all along. When Hanna finds a way to cure her shame (with Michael's help), I cheered for her. No one can ever forgive her for her terrible crimes, but redemption is always a second option. What I feel for Hanna is all due to Winslet's complex performance--a performance that is deservingly one of the frontrunners for this year's supporting actress line-up at the Oscars. Winslet sinks into all those layers of aging make-up, but she never loses touch with her character.
Fiennes gives a fine performance here as the older Michael, but it is Kross who steals his thunder. Kross is a promising newcomer who can go head-to-head with a master like Winslet; he has endless potential. Kross makes me care for Michael when it matters most, especially when I see how he sacrifices his adolescent social life just to maintain an affair with the woman he loves. Kross makes Michael whiny and naive, wishy-washy and cowardly, like many teenage boys, I'd imagine. In the same way I eventually sympathize for Hanna, I sympathize for Michael too, all due to the foundation Kross successfully builds in the first part of the film.
David Hare's screenplay is too bare to provide any grand emotional impact, but the performances and the direction do help. There is plenty to admire in the film; the positives outweigh the negatvies. The tough questions the film asks, which can feel forced and manipulativs, are rightfully asked. As much as I pondered, comfortable answer is nowhere in sight. The Reader features a guilt-ridden atmosphere of post-WWII Germany that ponders for easy answers but finds none. At its heart, The Reader is a haunting coming-of-age story. While a nation gradually heals in the shadow of its atrocious crimes, a man begins to mend his shameful past and a woman realizes that there is a cure for her secret shame. In the case of The Reader, redemption may be key.