Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, an engaging meditation on the puzzling duality of human nature, makes a solid jump to the big screen in director Stephen Daldry’s film of the same name. In adapting Schlink’s book, Daldry (Billy Elliott) and screenwriter David Hare, who also worked with Daldry in adapting The Hours, successfully capture the complex, dark themes of the novel without engaging in rote exercise. While the film occasionally feels stiff and could have used a stronger editing hand to pare its two-hour length, Schlink’s brooding narrative never falters, and Daldry’s visual rendering strongly compliments Schlink’s conceptual foundation.
The Reader mines familiar ground for a surprisingly fresh idea in setting the tale of an older woman’s seduction of a teenage boy against the backdrop of the Nazi war crime trials in post-war Germany. In 1950s Heidelberg, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross), nearly incapacitated by scarlet fever, stumbles into a courtyard where a woman helps him get home to his parents. After a long recovery Michael returns to thank her, finding an attractive but brusque and care-worn tram attendant named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Following an awkward introduction, an attraction grows between the adoring teenager and the lonely recluse, and Hanna and Michael embark upon an affair, with Michael visiting Hanna’s flat each day after school to recite his literature assignments while they lounge in her bed after lovemaking. After several months of this arrangement, however, Hanna flees suddenly and without warning, leaving love-sick Michael to discover her empty apartment.
The Reader then jumps ahead several years, as Michael enters law school. As part of his studies relating to the ongoing trials of suspected Nazi war criminals, Michael learns to his horror that Hanna stands among the accused. As Michael sits in the courtroom, Hanna’s past is revealed through testimony from her and others, and he cannot reconcile his blind love with her horrible secret. Worse still, as the trial unfolds Michael realizes that he possesses information that could reduce Hanna’s criminal culpability, information Hanna inexplicably refuses to reveal to her interrogators.
Interspersed among the threads of the love affair and the trial, Ralph Fiennes plays grown-up Michael as a middle-aged man ruminating on the past amid the wreckage of a failed marriage. Fiennes tends to take himself too seriously, but his undeniable gift for wistful introspection is used well here. The flash-forwards to Fiennes, decades after his relationship with Hanna, could have been distracting with a less capable director but here provide an important perspective removed from the primary narrative. Contrasted against a callow youth raw with emotion, Fiennes’ older Michael offers an alternate viewpoint, an appreciation of how gaining maturity often involves learning that one’s most treasured lover may be capable of evil deeds.
David Kross is well-cast as teenage Michael, a gawky youth made of knees and elbows, but with keen eyes and a gentle manner. At times Daldry doesn’t give Kross quite enough to do, and Michael spends a fair portion of the middle of the film stalking through courthouses and university hallways with his hands to his head. Such quibbles don’t undermine his accomplishment of Job One, however, which is selling the idea that an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, even a fugitive who cannot risk normal adult relationships, might fall for him. Young Michael’s tender yet unflinching approach to Hanna bridges possibly the most difficult credibility gap in the story, and Kross makes a fine match for Winslet in their many scenes together.
Winslet delivers a predictably strong and nuanced performance, particularly in the early and middle portions of the film where Hanna is in her late 30s. Winslet has shed the cherub-naïf image of her early pictures and can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best actors of her time, but the production itself lets her down a bit in the end. As Hanna ages in the story, the filmmakers subject Winslet to some distracting make-up shenanigans, detracting from the film’s final act, most notably in a late scene shared with a very natural-looking Fiennes. The finest acting skills cannot overcome the reality that Kate Winslet, who was 32 during filming, does not look like an old woman, even under caked-on wrinkles. Winslet brings her formidable A-game, but The Reader might have been better served by a more physically mature actor — 44-year-old Juliette Binoche comes to mind — who could have played both younger and older without having to make an extreme jump either way.
Despite the occasional distraction, however, The Reader remains a satisfying experience for viewers who appreciate a thoughtful drama from a filmmaker unafraid to plumb the troubled depths of lost souls. Never shrinking from its characters’ failings, the film offers an unflinching view into grey areas of morality: Is it ever acceptable to forgive a horrific crime committed by a lover? Does ethical behavior require that one intervene to help a person who consciously refuses to help herself? Why is the seduction of a 15-year-old boy by a 36-year-old woman unremarkable in this context? This last question didn’t truly strike me until the movie was over, when it occurred to me that, throughout the film, Daldry makes no apology or excuse for Hanna’s sexual relationship with a teenager. Whether because it’s a boy with a woman, or because it was Europe in the 1950s, Daldry simply presents the event as something that occurred, leading to other events of greater import. Even more impressive is the film’s refusal to soften or explain away Hanna’s culpability for her role in the Nazi machine. In an era when unsympathetic protagonists are either spruced up by nervous studio executives or neutered by focus groups, Daldry and Hare admirably elect not to interfere with the tone and pitch of Schlink’s characterization.
As a result, The Reader surpasses expectations as a true adult drama. While it doesn’t belong in the discussion of Best Picture for 2008, a nomination for Supporting Actor (Fiennes) or Adapted Screenplay (Hare) shouldn’t be out of the question, and the film is well worth seeing.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
The Reader / Ted Boynton
Film | January 9, 2009 | Comments ()