The Reader

January 22, 2009


“How many more movies do we need about the Holocaust? I mean, we get it, it was grim.” – Kate Winslet, “Extras”

A cheap shot to start with, I know, but on the one hand, I couldn’t help myself, and on the other, it is pretty apt.  Every year sees the release of a slew of Oscar-baiting, ‘worthy’ films, which have become about as difficult to sludge through as your standard Hollywood rom-com crop or summer action spectacles.  They tend to be visually bland, but still “moving” and “serious” in a way only an audience who doesn’t know the difference between those words and “self-important tripe” can understand.  And so, from Stephen Daldry, the director of Billy Elliot and The Hours, comes The Reader, just in time for awards season.  How fortuitous.

Michael Berg (David Kross) falls ill on the street and is assisted by Hannah (Kate Winslet), a tram ticket inspector who lives upstairs.  She helps him home, and after several months in bed recovering, he returns to thank her.  Awkward moments of highly charged sexual tension ensue, and a passionate affair begins.  These early sequences of seduction are by the far the most affecting of the film.  Kross does shy, nervous, and excited all very well, and Winslet has a real forcefulness that sells the relationship.   There’s a raw physicality to these scenes that lends it a sense of weight and emotion that, unfortunately, is missing the rest of the time.  As they get closer, he starts to read to her.  It is painfully obvious she is illiterate from fairly early on, though Daldry is keen to reiterate this later on when it becomes a plot point.  After a few months of summer love, she gets a promotion, and promptly skips town (because she can’t read!!!) without saying goodbye, and Michael is devastated.

Eight years later and he is at law school.  His small seminar group begins attending the trial of female SS guards charged with murder after a book is published by a survivor, and surprise, Hannah is one of the guards.  And thus the film moves into a dry, academic exercise of determining how the holocaust can be understood.  Who is to blame?  How are they to be blamed?  If nobody did anything to stop it, isn’t everyone to blame?  If so, why should these random cases be brought up for prosecution?  These are genuinely interesting questions to be asked and explored, but this film is certainly not the forum.

Kross might have played the part of wide-eyed, shy, and excited well, but once his character moves to Serious Moral Quandary mode, he ends up looking confused, and not in the way he should be.  Winslet is entirely sympathetic during the trial, which in and of itself is a problem.  Daldry goes to great pains to garner that sympathy, especially by setting up all the other women on trial as selfish, tight-lipped and unrepentant.  Hannah might not be repentant, but only because she seems to have no clue what is going on or what she might have done wrong.  Her fate is condemned because she is too ashamed to admit she is illiterate, a plot point that might work in the book, but just comes off as false here.  Michael’s difficulties lead him to visit a concentration camp and to look down, sadly, as he sees the piles and piles of shoes of the victims.  Yes, that scene is as mawkishly sentimental as it sounds.  This all leads to a decision Michael has to make regarding her fate, and I was screaming at him to go one way, but not due to any investment in the characters, but because I simply wanted the experience to be done.

But done it was not, and we are treated to a final act with Ralph Fiennes taking over the role of Michael and his continued confusion over the entire affair.  Michael continues to seek resolution and understanding, but by this point I’ve checked out.   Fiennes plays the role with the same earnest drippiness he seems to bring to all of his serious turns these days.  When was the last time he was at all interesting when not playing a comically over-the-top character?  He was refreshingly goofy and funny in In Bruges, but because of the material here, he falls back into The Constant Gardener territory, itself an appalling, “issues”-based monstrosity.

Daldry’s desire to make a worthy, faithful adaptation of a book dealing with the ramification of the holocaust sucks the life out of The Reader.  The film wastes two talented cinematographers (Roger Deakins and Chris Menges) to show us blandly composed shots and austere, “this-is-serious” faces.  Winslet is excellent throughout, full of sadness, love, and regret, but her character is never presented in a consistent manner to allow us to care.  Nothing is explored enough to justify the time spent on the effects of the holocaust, and there’s nothing vibrant or exciting enough to keep us interested in the characters.  For a while, it seems that illiteracy is meant as a metaphor about holocaust denial, making these characters into ciphers, which would explain why there’s nothing to invest in.   Then it turns, making the case not as simple, which is better, but leaving me unsatisfied as far as how to react.  The film is too confused to make a point, but too desperate to make that point to allow us to care about anyone in it.  In the end, we’re left with a toothless, inoffensive movie that trusts that just by adapting a well-regarded book about the holocaust, it is an important and worthy film.  It isn’t. It ticks the boxes of standard, serious subject matter and its treatment.  It is an entirely safe film.  And any film about either coming-of-age sexuality or the holocaust should most certainly never, ever be safe.


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