The Reader, for which Kate Winslet won an Oscar for best actress, is about any number of things, and appeals at many levels, from that of soft porn to jurisprudence. Nevertheless, even with its excellent acting, a rock-solid script, and the serious consideration of important moral issues, the film somehow fails to coalesce into a satisfying unity.
The movie is divided into three sections. The first deals with an erotic relationship that develops between an academically precocious student, Michael Berg (David Kross) and an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, who works as a ticket collector on the tram service (Kate Winslet). The relationship is intense both physically and emotionally, but one day, Schmitz suddenly disappears.
The second section has Berg as an honors student in a university law program. The class is participating as observers in Schmitz’s trial for her role as a concentration camp guard during World War II and her direct responsibility for the death of a number of inmates.
In the third section, Berg, now played by Ralph Fiennes, is a successful lawyer and failed husband and lover, torn between his knowledge of Schmitz the person and his acknowledgment of her actions. He spends considerable time engaged in a thoroughly unsatisfactory attempt at balancing a commitment to the truth and reconciling his love and horror of Schmitz.
The first section, before the production gets bogged down in a somewhat ham-handed moral dialectic, is the most appealing. It has Kross and Winslet showing off acres of well-toned flesh as they develop a relationship through sex and the great works of Western literature. Both the leads are certainly good to look at, with even Hanna’s cramped studio apartment exuding a degree of slum chic. Watching the two go at it with considerable finesse, my mind wandered to a quote by the novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Raymond Chandler about sex: “It’s excitement of a high order ... It’s necessary and it doesn’t have to be ugly. But it always has to be managed. Making it glamorous is a billion-dollar industry and it costs every cent of it.”
It was hard not to be distracted by the glamour and celebrity wattage that was shining on screen, and for all the skill in which the trysts between Hanna and Michael are managed, you never forget that you are looking at Kate Winslet in her prime, and that millions of US dollars have been spent to make her look good in bed.
Hanna is addicted as much to Michael’s reading as she is to his body, and the two get through books ranging from The Odyssey to Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Hanna loves the stories, but the transformative power of literature is certainly lost on her, and on the film, as Daldry moves on quickly to his next theme, involving truth and reconciliation in relation to the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.
And here, once again, he is simply content to scratch the surface, satisfied with the semblance of moral seriousness, as in the first half of the film he is satisfied with a glossy airbrushed version of sex. In trying to understand what Hanna might have done after she joined the SS as a prison guard, Michael makes a visit to a concentration camp; a visit that is so artfully lit that it might have been footage for an interior design exhibit.
Kross, who is perfectly adequate as the young boy fumbling his way through a complex sexual relationship, is less appealing as a university student, doing a lot of sullen pouting as a means of conveying his deep unease at the proceedings in court. When Michael’s role is taken over by Ralph Fiennes, all expressions other than that of acute dyspepsia vanish. Fiennes has made something of a specialty of playing men with grave difficulty expressing emotions other those of anger and dissatisfaction, but while this might be perfectly acceptable for his stint as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, it is getting a bit trying after his leading roles in The Constant Gardener (2005) and The Duchess (2008).
Winslet saves the day for The Reader, not so much for getting her kit off in the early section of the film, but as a woman on trial for doing what she thought was her duty. There are moments in the courtroom in which Hanna the tram conductor burns with all the things she cannot or does not know how to say, as she sees her virtues of obedience and conformity transformed into incarnations of evil. It is these moments that make The Reader memorable. Unfortunately, Daldry hasn’t time to linger, and wants to move on with a story that drifts dangerously close to being a legal thriller on the lines of a John Grisham novel.
But the thrills don’t last long either, and the film then switches to an angst-ridden Fiennes trying to cope with his past. He has a run-in with a flinty camp survivor (Lena Olin), who puts the case for the prosecution once again, even as Hanna grows old in prison. She continues to work her way through the canon of Western literature, but all those books, all those words, never seem to be absorbed, or have any impact on her personality or thought.
The Reader has a similar lack of effect on the audience, and while it is interesting for the many of the questions it raises, it never hangs around long enough to answer them.
DIRECTED BY: STEPHEN DALDRY
RALPH FIENNES (MICHAEL BERG), DAVID KROSS (YOUNG MICHAEL BERG), KATE WINSLET (HANNA SCHMITZ)
RUNNING TIME: 124 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
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