Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.8.09


As You Wish
Reading aloud to Kate Winslet
by Jason Blair

THE READER: Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare, based on a book by Bernhard Schlink. Cinematography, Roger Deakins and Chris Menges. Music, Nico Muhly. Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross and Lena Olin. The Weinstein Company, 2008. R. 123 minutes.

Ralph Fiennes In The Reader

Spoilers ahead, folks, and not just the kind that reveal plot: The Reader is an artful but morally confused film that is unwilling to confront its subject matter directly. Expertly photographed by Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) and starring the remarkable Kate Winslet — the only actress I can think of whose beauty deserves more attention — The Reader is specifically engineered to scoop up awards by virtue of, well, its sense of virtue. Winslet plays, of all things, a former Auschwitz guard named Hanna, now on trial for her role in mass murder. When the film asks us to reward her barbaric acts with pity, it does so without persuasively connecting Hanna to her crimes, raising the question of how we forgive what hasn’t been properly confessed. It’s a contradiction that cheapens the main concern of The Reader, which seems to be how we confront the past during the present. By not avoiding it, for one thing. 

The Reader cuts back and forth between three periods: 1958, when Hanna, now a tram ticket-taker, begins an affair with a young student Michael (David Kross); 1966, when Michael, now in law school, witnesses Hanna’s trial; and 1995, when Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, comes to terms with the role Hanna played in his life. While their affair only lasts one summer, Hanna’s sexual frankness and childlike wish to be read to clearly make an impact on Michael. But not enough, it seems, for him to intervene when he realizes, during her trial years later, that he knows something that might favorably impact her case. As a grown man, he attempts to reconcile his withholding, not realizing that he is in many ways another of her victims, albeit one who survived.

Scenes from the early period are so highly sexualized, the bathtub might be said to have a starring role. Prior to sex, Michael reads to Hanna from Homer and Twain — but not, in a terrific moment, from D.H. Lawrence, whom Hanna rejects on moral grounds. Still, even during this relatively uncomplicated time together, Kross is slow and unexpressive, out of step with Winslet. Winslet’s Hanna is unapproachable, shifty and intense, like a cloak under which terrible memories stir. Her reticence is utterly convincing; his devotion is not. It gives their pairing a sudden, lurching feel that never quite clicks. 

Both slick and sentimental, The Reader is a well-made film for which it’s possible to feel very little. That is, until Ralph Fiennes takes over; if he overplays the sadness a touch, he can still exhibit more emotion in a glance than can Kross in an entire scene. The Reader’s only true and moving moments come late — Hanna learning to read the word “the” in prison, to name one — and the film closes with the elder Michael paying a visit to an Auschwitz survivor, played with incandescent focus by Lena Olin. Minute for minute, Olin’s is the best performance I saw this year, so confident and measured is her expression of vast sadness. Unfortunately, she provides Michael a correction in the form of a lecture — a beautifully delivered lecture, but one that contradicts the sentimentality of the film. It’s a sharp reminder of the flawed nature of The Reader, which gives too little and asks too much.