The Reader
Talk about not picking up hints … someone slap this boy!


Golden Mug

2008 GOLDEN MUG NOMINEE:

Best Supporting Actress (Lena Olin)
Best Adapted Screenplay (David Hare (screenplay), Bernhard Schlink (novel))


Theatrical Release Date: 12/25/2008
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin

Does one phase of a person’s life define them? Should prior acts have any bearing on a person as they are today? And what does it take to reconcile your perspective on someone once their past has caught up with them?

These are some of the weighty issues on display in “The Reader”. Based on a bestselling book by Bernhard Schlink, the film focuses on two people. Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is a smart but weak lad of 15, eager to discover the joys of young love. Hanna (Kate Winslet) is a 38 year-old public transit worker who seduces him into a summer-long affair.

Their relationship consists almost solely of sex, as she teaches the boy about the pleasures of the flesh (yeah, I said it). Eventually, she decides to have him start reading books to her as a means of foreplay, making it a rule that a portion of a book must be read before the hanky panky begins (yeah, I said that too).

Once the affair is over, Michael doesn’t see her again until he is at law school and on a class trip to view the trial of six female guards who worked at a concentration camp during World War II. This revelation forces him to choose how to categorize his feelings towards both her and Nazi conspirators in general, as the concept of good and evil is no longer so black and white.

The film is also an aching love story, full of longing and regret. Michael has never let go of Hanna and it’s not really possible to tell one’s heart how to feel – no matter how much the mind tries to. The emotional disconnect that was created by the ending of the affair has haunted Michael and his quest to find closure spans decades.

Director Stephen Daldry methodically peels layers of the story away, further contrasting the pair’s innocent love with her guilty past. Both Fiennes and Winslet do an excellent job, as one might expect. Fiennes has always been good at playing the brooding, respectable type and Winslet plays her entire character so naturally and sincerely – from 38, on up into a much more distinguished age, shall we say. Though equal credit must also go to David Kross, who plays Fiennes’ younger self. He does a very nice job of transforming his character from a meek, young boy into a more confident, albeit angry, young man.

I did have some issues with the pacing of the film, and its run time in general. At nearly two and a half hours, this isn’t something you check out right after a big gulp. The middle section seemed to drag on, providing more details about the pair but not really adding too much in the way of emotional substance. There’s probably 15 to 20 minutes of material there that didn’t need to be reinforced.

This leads to one of the more delicate subjects of the film – the sex. The early parts of the film are largely composed of the pair in various states of undress in Winslet’s apartment. Some of this was absolutely necessary to convey the journey Michael was undertaking as he quickly had to say goodbye to his adolescence. After a few scenes, though, it just seemed like overkill. Their different motivations and rewards regarding their affair were clear early on and while I’m never one to tell Ms. Winslet to cover up, it just felt a little on the gratuitous side.

That being said however, the resolution of the film is powerful and almost entirely makes up for the slower middle section. Lena Olin, portraying a concentration camp survivor, delivers an outstanding performance that unfortunately may just be too short in runtime to garner her any awards contention (though I’d like to remind people of Judi Dench’s slight role in “Shakespeare in Love”). The scene between Olin and Fiennes towards the end of the film was one of the most genuine I’ve seen on film this year.

Trying to get people excited about seeing yet another Holocaust related film is getting to the point of being like telling someone they should see their doctor about some nagging headaches. You already know it’s not going to be “fun” but that it probably is important to do. “The Reader” managed to explore a little bit of different ground here, as it is more about reconciliation and closure than any specific element of World War II, and so for that and the excellent acting performances, I’ll hand out a 4 out of 5.

If you were leaning towards seeing the film, by all means get out there and do so. If you aren’t sure this is the movie experience you want right now, feel free to check out any of the other excellent films floating around the googleplexes these days. This isn’t quite a must-see but it’s also one that will linger a bit on your psyche as you try to reconcile your own conclusions about people and how you deal with them yourself.