Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
David Hare (based upon book by Bernhard Schlink)
As I was watching a family film earlier this year, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," it dawned on me that perhaps we had finally reached a point in our society where we could, without judgment, allow ourselves to see inside the humanity of those involved in the Holocaust.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" did so rather safely...utilizing two children and the friendship between them.
"The Reader" is not a safe film. It is this lack of safety that gives "The Reader" it's authentic aura, and it is the sweepingly majestic performance of Kate Winslet that gives it its unflinching power.
Based upon a German novel by Bernhard Schlink, "The Reader" follows the story of Hannah (Kate Winslet) through the eyes of Michael Berg, portrayed by Ralph Fiennes when he's older and David Kross when he's a mere teenager.
The story begins when 15-year-old Michael gets ill and is helped by the then 30ish Hannah. Before long, the two enter into a "forbidden" affair that becomes both intellectually and sexually stimulating. Their relationship is raw and vulnerable, and director Stephen Daldry uses a great amount of nudity to reveal both the story and its characters.
Michael, only just discovering his sexuality, exudes a comfortable sexuality while Hannah slowly peels away her layers and, bit by bit, exhibits a warmth to his affections.
Then, she leaves.
Michael is ill-prepared to handle this abandonment and over the next several years he becomes a shell of his former self. Several years later, he is at law school when he again encounters Hannah during a Frankfurt war crimes tribunal where he learns the secrets of her past.
It is in these moments that Michael, wounded years earlier by Hannah, acts out of his woundedness and responds similarly. It is also in this moment that Hannah, perhaps representing many human beings swept up in the nationalist pride gone awry during the Holocaust, gives us a glimpse at a person behind the swastika.
"The Reader" is not about the Holocaust...not really. Instead, "The Reader" is about Germans during this time and the lives they led and the choices they made for a wide variety of reasons. "The Reader" seeks not to justify abhorrent behaviors, but to simply allow the characters to unfold within their own authenticity.
"The Reader" is about Michael and Hannah, not their jobs or decisions, mistakes or misdeeds. The film, in fact, moves forward all the way to 1995 where it becomes obvious that this early life relationship has shaped virtually every aspect of Michael's identity.
Winslet is simply magnificent as Hannah, portraying her without judgment and without sympathy. Instead, Winslet portrays Hannah as she'd likely really be...a woman comfortable inside her own skin, making her own decisions and, over the years, becoming more self-aware and insightful. It is a remarkable performance most certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.
David Kross's performance is similarly moving, and Ralph Fiennes gives Michael a beautiful, involving subtlety as Michael ages yet remains just as impacted by Hannah. It should be noted, however, that neither Kross nor Fiennes are given nearly as much to do onscreen and there are times the chasm in character development is glaringly obvious.
Supporting performances from the likes of Bruno Ganz and Lena Olin also excel.
David Hare's script is easily one of 2008's most involving and intelligent works, and the cinematography from Roger Deakins and Chris Menges is mesmerizing without ever seeming too artistic and losing its naturalism.
There are moments in "The Reader" that feel a tad bit out of focus and, given Daldry's comfort with revealing the intimacies between Michael and Hannah, it feels an odd decision to not explore more fully Hannah's moral choices during the Holocaust more fully.
Were it solely for the performance of Kate Winslet, "The Reader" would be worth seeing. While it is a film that does not itself measure up to the greatness of Winslet's performance, "The Reader" is likely to play most successfully to those who accept it solely as a film about Michael and Hannah and who are able to allow its Holocaust themes to reside largely as background exposition.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic