Monday, February 16, 2009

The Reader

Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin

Running Time: 124 min.

Rating: R

*** ½ (out of ****)


Jaws dropped on the morning of January 22nd when Stephen Daldry’s controversial and much maligned The Reader was announced as one of the five films set to compete for the Best Picture Oscar. It took a spot many thought should have been reserved for The Dark Knight and in doing so has been on the receiving end of what could almost be considered a smear campaign heading into the ceremony. When the film ended I needed quite a bit of time to sit and gather my thoughts on it, much less form or express an opinion on it. It’s less an emotional journey than an intellectual one and I can sympathize with those who are upset with the film’s methods or see no value in the entire experience. But I do believe those who think the film asks us to feel sorry for a Nazi war criminal simply because she’s illiterate, or even asks us to feel sorry for her at all, are way off the mark. That’s a gross oversimplification that speaks more to our uneasiness with the subject matter than anything else. Besides, the Academy would never have enough guts to nominate anything that offensive.

The film instead gets most of its mileage from the fact that it really isn’t about Holocaust, but what happens when your previously held perceptions about someone are challenged and pushed to the breaking point. It’s an interesting character study that isn’t necessarily the offensive smut fest you’ve heard it is. That said, the stodgy Academy only nominated it because it touches on the topic of the Holocaust, was produced by the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack and stars a frequently nude Kate Winslet as a pedophile Nazi guard. While a thoughtful, well-directed film, there’s little evidence to suggest it deserves to be listed as one of the top cinematic achievements of the year. Then again, the same exact statement could be made (to a greater extent) about the mediocre Milk, another Best Picture nominee this year that inexplicably earned widespread acclaim.

The film (based on Bernhard Schlink’s German novel) opens as middle-aged lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) reflects back on his days as a 15-year-old (Michael Kross) in 1950’s West Berlin. During that summer he meets Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) a cold, detached tram attendant in her mid-thirties who takes him in after discovering he falls ill with Scarlet Fever in front of her apartment. After he recovers he goes back to thank her and the two begin a torrid affair in which their passionate bouts of sex are preceded by him reading to her. Aside from the obvious legal issues, this isn’t exactly the healthiest of relationships. Michael, who she refers to as “kid” has to start re-prioritizing his teenage life to meet her needs and feels his own sense of self sliding away in the process. Of course the running joke here is that this kid would instead probably be running around bragging to his friends that he’s banging the hot older chick down the block who looks like Kate Winslet, which just speaks to how inherently difficult this topic is to tackle on film. Just imagine if the genders were reversed. The affair doesn’t last long as Hanna vanishes at the end of the summer. Flash forward to 1966 when Michael (now in law school) discovers her on trial for aiding in the murder of 300 Jews while serving as an SS Guard at Auschwitz.

Hannah is unrepentant, claiming she was just “doing her job,” as a horrified Michael silently looks on with his law class. She doesn’t want to defend herself against the heinous allegations, or more accurately, just can’t. The secret she’s keeping, the one she took a job at Auschwitz to hide, brings her more shame than her role in the murders. That speaks to the character’s moral shortcomings, not the film’s and isn’t Daldry’s personal endorsement that involvement in the Holocaust is somehow “less shameful,” than not knowing how to read, as some have been trying to spin it. People like this existed and probably still do. She’s horrible, her actions beyond deplorable and I didn’t feel sympathy for her at all, nor was I supposed to. And I especially wasn’t supposed to simply because she can’t read. The film gives you a choice and Daldry’s not holding a gun up to your head telling you what to feel. This kid fell in love (or in lust) with the wrong person and now must forever live with the consequences. That’s what this story is REALLY about.

There comes a point in the trial where he’s faced with the option of coming forward with the valuable information that could help her case and must wrestle with speaking up or remaining silent. The choice isn’t easy. It’s here where we’re allowed to put ourselves in his shoes while the film questions the idea of moral responsibility before trailing off in an unexpected direction entirely as the story moves into the ‘70’s and beyond. Michael carries that guilt and grief with him into his adult life, which Fiennes externalizes so well in a role that’s about ten times larger and more important than you’ve been led to believe from the ads. An encounter late in the film between Michael and a survivor (played by Lena Olin) even directly addresses our concerns about having any pity for Hanna. This is Michael’s story and his search for acceptance that his involvement with her has drastically altered his life and even impacted his relationship with his daughter. It’s perplexing how anyone could say Hanna is absolved or let off the hook for her actions given her circumstances by the end of the film. In fact, they really let her have it.

As far as Kate Winslet’s best performances go, this ranks in the top tier, which says a lot. She’s why all of this works and while the arguing rages on as to whether the film wants you to feel sympathy for her character, no one could claim her performance asks you to. Just watch what she does (and doesn’t do) in those courtroom scenes and then later on when she’s believably aged to 65. To say she deserves the Oscar for this is almost beside the point considering she’s pretty much deserved one for every role she’s played in her career. What’s interesting to note is that this part almost went to Nicole Kidman. Had she gotten it this probably would have been a completely different film. After Birth, you’d figure seducing underage kids in bathtubs would be a piece of cake for her now. Fiennes brilliantly anchors the third act but it’s David Kross as the 15-year-old Michael who shares all the major scenes with Winslet and goes miles further than just holding his own, conveying all the confusion and angst someone that age would be feeling while saying very little.

This is a defense of the film, although not a passionate one because I really believe Academy members voted for it for all the wrong reasons and it shouldn’t rank among the top five achievements last year in cinema. It was only released to line Harvey Weinstein’s pockets and rack up Oscars and that it ended up actually being intelligent was probably some kind of happy accident. At times it also feels like a homework assignment. But that doesn’t mean we should just stop making movies about difficult, challenging subjects because it makes us uncomfortable. Or that all characters in these types of films should be portrayed as inhuman monsters who cackle and twirl their Hitler mustaches while sending innocent people to die because it makes us feel better about what happened. Many of them were probably a lot like this woman.

The tough issues covered here couldn’t have been handled any more sensitively and the tone couldn’t have been balanced any better yet everyone still seems to find it inappropriate. At least this inspires thought and discussion. Something like Milk just inspired for the sake of inspiring. And reducing a daring political figure’s life to standard TV movie of the week fodder is more offensive to me than anything in this. At least this took risks. Sorry, but nothing about the film is average, from its writing, to its direction, to the performances. And I do sincerely apologize for that because I really wanted to hate this film more than you know. It ends giving you a lot to think about, which is what good art should do. That The Reader has sparked such controversy and outrage is a credit to its power, but also a disturbing sign that the notoriously out-of-touch Academy may have actually struck a nerve.

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