This year, we have "The Reader", which is similar to "Atonement" as it's a downer of a European period piece headlined by an excellent English Actress, while it is also similar to "Little Miss Sunshine" in so far as Kate Winslet may just finally win her first Oscar for this role, and if so, it will be well earned indeed.
I pride myself in not giving out spoilers in my reviews. But in this case, I'm not sure how I can really explain myself without touching on the plot issues and "surprises", because these issues are what makes "The Reader" an overall disappointment, despite many brilliant aspects of the movie in general.
So before I get into those details, let me tell you the one great thing about this film, and that is Kate Winslet's performance. It is astounding. Winslet has been willing to take on risky roles ("Little Children", "Revolutionary Road", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), but she really goes out on a limb on this one. She is willing to bear all, emotionally and figuratively, as a woman in her mid-30s having an affair with a 15 year old boy in Post WWII Germany.
For those wanting no additional spoilers, you can probably skip down to the rating now.
For those of you sticking around, the movie was an infuriating mix of scenes that were brilliantly made and utterly fascinating to watch and others that were horribly tedious or flat out illogical/implausible to the point that it drug the movie down.
The movie opens focusing on Michael Berg, a successful lawyer in Germany in the mid 1980s. Michael is cold and aloof, fraught with intimacy problems, be it with his latest one-night stand who he hurries out the door, or his college aged daughter.
Flashing back to 1958, we get the back story. Riding home on a train one day, Michael become horribly sick. He was tended by a fare-taker from the trolley, Hanna Schmitz. Months later, having finally recovered from the Scarlet Fever that nearly killed him, he went to Hanna's apartment to thank her. How his appearance there ends up with them naked and having sex is, in many ways, downright disturbing, to say nothing about the morality of it all.
Why does Hanna seduce (or becomes seduced), and continues to spend time with this boy? She doesn't seem to have anyone else as a friend, so perhaps this is the only way she can have an interaction with anyone. Indeed, she often prefers having Michael read to her than make love to her. He reads her everything; literature, newspapers, comics...even "Lady Chatterley's Lover", which evokes an ironic condemnation of the book as "immoral" by her, as she lies naked with a boy who has barely reach puberty.
That relationship; why it started and why it continues, creates the best drama of the movie. Hanna obviously cares for Michael; but she doesn't know how to truly let anyone close to her. She constantly just calls Michael "kid", and reproaches him often enough to make a roller coaster of his self esteem.
You also wonder why Michael becomes so infatuated with her, given her stand-offish behavior. Yes, it's easy to say "what 15 year old boy wouldn't want to be having sex with Kate Winslet?", and that would be a legitimate question, I suppose. But here is where Winslet's acting shines through. She's NOT that attractive in this film. You don't see the glamorous woman that appears in the red carpets. You don't even see the beautiful nude woman getting her portrait sketched by Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic". No, Winslet's frequent nude scenes are shot in unflattering harsh light or in drab shadows, and the makeup is such that she does not look to be that much of a catch for any boy. In fact, it may be the most non-titillating scenes with a naked woman I've ever seen...especially considering her natural beauty.
Maybe I'm just a prude, and can't get past the double-standards of it all. Had it been a man in his mid-thirties having sex with a 15 year old girl, it would be called rape, and the man would have been justifiably vilified. Here? It's just a semi-weird rite of passage.
Michael, meanwhile, grows in one way due to knowing her, as his self-confidence outside of the bedroom soars, and he becomes quite the target for his young, very attractive classmates. But he wants nothing to do with them. Then one day he shows up to Hanna's apartment, and she has moved out without a trace, leaving Michael devastated. Another event that truly casts confusion on the motives she had for the relationship, which was never satisfactorily explained or even guessed at.
The movie then moves forward several years, and starts veering off the tracks. Michael (still played by Kross at this point) is now in law school, a handpicked disciple of a brilliant Jewish professor, played by Burno Ganz (who gave such a memorable performance as Adolph Hitler in "Downfall"). The professor takes Michael and four others from his group to observe an important trial in which five female prison guards from Auschwitz are being accused of war crimes, particularly of standing by and doing nothing while 300 Jews burned to death inside of a locked church. To Michael's shock, Hanna is one of them.
As opposed to the other defendants, Hanna does not deny that she worked for the SS. Nor does she deny that earlier in her duties, she had to pick out prisoners to send to the gas chambers. She just denies being the ringleader.
And to that, I say "so what?" Hanna has a "secret" (which is pretty obvious to everyone after the first 30 minutes), but what does that have to do with her actions during the Holocaust? In that regard, the film makers seem to be focusing on illiteracy as the Big Issue, which absolutely pales to the real questions raised by the events. How does someone willingly go to work for the Nazis, and so blithely accepts the mass murder of her fellow human beings?
It was outrageous that Hanna would have more shame from not being able to read than from her actions. But you never see anything from Hanna during the trial that even closely resembled remorse.
I don't blame Winslet for that. In truth, with a better script, that would have been a fascinating avenue to explore. It's become fashionable for most Germans from WWII to be portrayed as people who really hated the Nazis, but had to go along with them. I think there would have been a great opportunity to get more into the character of an unrepentant human being who didn't have a problem with the Nazis Final Solution. It would have made an excellent film to try to understand the background in her life that led her to thinking that way and willingly accepting her job duties.
Given that Winslet isn't allowed by director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare to go down that path, she does the best that she can in presenting a woman who has been broken down by 20 years of guilt, rejection, and shame. And even if the make-up for Hanna in her 60s isn't very convincing, Winslet's acting is still extraordinary.
Ralph Fiennes is also an excellent actor, but unlike Winslet, he gets next to nothing in the form of raw materials for his character for him to do anything with it. The adult Michael is just a maudlin boor, one that garners no sympathy whatsoever. Yes, he might have been able to help Hanna at her sentencing, but he shouldn't have blamed himself, because Hanna was the one who chose her fate, including the final decision to not reveal her shameful secret, even if failing to do so cost her another 15 years in prison.
In the end there is a scene that sums it up for everyone, I think. Michael has gone to America to give money to a daughter of one of the victims of the church burning. Lena Olin plays the woman with the proper level of derisive pity and righteous indignation when she tells him, in effect, that this attempt to buy off Hanna's guilt of her part in the Holocaust was not to be used by him as a form of therapy.
He could have used that kind of advice years earlier. It might have made for a much better movie than this effort.
My Rating: Bill Nelsen (2 ½ footballs). Kate Winslet's performance alone stops this from being a Jeff Garcia (1 football).
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