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Reader, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Turns Out Reading Really Does Open Up A World Of Wonders After All"
2 stars

There are two ways to approach “The Reader,” the big-screen adaptation of the internationally acclaimed 1995 novel by German author Bernhard Schlink. The first is to look at it as a high-toned work of artistically inclined cinema that serves as a meditation on the nature of truth, guilt, reconciliation and redemption while saying profound things about literacy (it is for it) and the Holocaust (it is against it). On the other hand, once can also look at it as a strange coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who finds himself embroiled in a passionate and life-changing affair with an older woman who turns out to have a couple of big secrets hidden up the sleeves that she is rarely seen wearing. I have no doubt that the filmmakers would prefer that I look at it as the former but the problem with doing that is that it really doesn’t work along those lines. On the other hand, it doesn’t really work as an example of the latter either when you get right down to it. No matter how you approach it, the end result is the same--a film that features an admittedly extraordinary performance from Kate Winslet surrounded by a lot of other stuff that doesn’t work nearly as well as it should have.

After kicking things off with a framing device set in 1995 that suggests how grim and dour things are eventually going to get, mostly because of the presence of an extra-dour Ralph Fiennes, “The Reader” begins in Germany in 1958 with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) staggering through the streets in the rain before virtually collapsing in the courtyard of an apartment building. There, he is rescued by Hannah (Kate Winslet), an older bus conductor who cleans him up and takes him back to his home, where he spends the next few months battling what turns out to be scarlet fever. When he recovers, he returns to her apartment to thank her for helping him out and while he is there, he accidentally peeks in on her while she is changing and flees when he is caught. Nevertheless, he returns to her place, one thing leads to another and she winds up giving him both a bath and a roll in the hay. This begins a passionate and clandestine affair that eventually expands into new areas when Hannah insists that he read to her for a while before they hit the sheets and they begin plowing through the great works of literature, including “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Odyssey” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (the last one being a neat trick since it wasn’t widely available to the general public at the time) as well as all of the positions in the “Kama Sutra” (ironically, one of the few books that they aren’t seen reading). At first, Michael is so besotted with Hannah that he hardly even registers her occasional coldness towards him (“You don’t matter enough to upset me.”) and even begins envisioning some kind of idyllic future for them--they even spend a weekend in the country together where the local innkeeper wishes him and his mother well. Eventually, however, Michael begins spending more time with friends his own age and one day, Hannah leaves town without warning, a shocking move that will affect all of his future romantic relationships.

The story picks up eight years later with Michael in law school studying under the esteemed Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). As part of his class work, he and his fellow students are attending a high-profile war crimes trial involving a group of middle-aged women who were in charge of a prison camp who allowed a group of prisoners that they were escorting through the countryside after an evacuation to burn to death inside of the firebombed church that they were locked inside rather than run the risk of them escaping--an incident that only came to light later on when one of the few survivors escaped to America and wrote a book about her experiences before returning to Germany to testify against her former captors. However, Michael is stunned to discover that one of the defendants is none other than Hannah herself and not only that, she seems perfectly willing to simply assume all the blame instead of offering up any real defense. As it turns out, she is doing this in order to mask an even more terrible and shocking secret (well, from her perspective, of course)--that she is completely illiterate but by the time Michael puts it all together, she has been sentenced to life in prison. A decade later, Michael decides to confront his still-potent feelings for Hannah by sending her packages that contain tapes of him reading books to her but no correspondence to speak of. Over the next decade or so, Hannah finally learns to read thanks to these tapes and when it comes time for her parole in 1988, he is the only contact that they prison can find for her and for the first time since that long-ago summer, the two are reunited and are forced to come to terms with both their shared past and uncertain futures.

The early scenes of “The Reader,” the ones chronicling the torrid affair between Hannah and Michael, are by far the best in the film and this is not, as some might suggest, because of the amount of skin bared by Kate Winslet during them. Rather, it is because Winslet and Kross are able to create a convincing relationship in these scenes that is reasonably intriguing, assuming that you are able to overlook the fact that you can pretty much put together Hannah’s shocking non-Nazi secret without much trouble and that you can overlook the fact that this kind of tale might not go down so well if the genders of the two characters had been reversed. However, once this portion of the story concludes and the film moves on to the stuff involving the trial and its aftermath, it becomes clear that while director Stephen Daldry (whose previous film was the equally appalling award-grubber “The Hours” and screenwriter David Hare are fully aware that they are telling a story of truth, guilt and the attempts of the German people, both as individuals and as a country, to reconcile themselves with their past and redeeming themselves for their past misdeeds, they don’t really have anything of interest or value to say about these subjects.

Oh sure, they assume the proper high moral tone required of a movie of this type and as a result, it may fool some viewers into thinking that because it deal with important subjects, the film itself is somehow important by extension. In fact, the movie itself is just as intellectually bankrupt as its anti-heroine and its suggestion that Hannah’s actions can be understood and almost excused by the fact that she never learned to read is borderline offensive--perhaps not as much as the truly loathsome “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but certainly in the ballpark. Additionally, it never quite manages to explain why Michael is so crushed with guilt over his relationship with Hannah when it is made explicit that she refuses to offer him any details into her own past. I suppose that this is an aspect to the story that might have gotten lost in the translation somewhere along the way but without it, it leaves a big hole at the center of the story that winds up subverting its grand stabs at catharsis in the final scenes as Michael finally deals with his relationship with Hannah in order to absolve himself of her sins and to get on with his life.

Although Kross acquits himself well as the younger version of Michael and there is a nice late-inning turn from Lena Olin as the daughter of the survivor of that church firebombing (who has a withering scene at the end that almost serves as a meta-critique of the very film that we have just been watching), the only aspect of “The Reader” that really works--the thing that saves it from essentially being “Summer of 42” with swastikas--is the central performance (not supporting, despite what the awards committee at the Weinstein Company would have you and Academy voters believe otherwise) from Kate Winslet as Hannah. Granted, the notion of Winslet turning in a superlative performance is hardly anything new--a very good case could be made for her as the single best actress working in films today--but in most of her other triumphs, she was helped out by working on projects that offered her fully developed characters and screenplays to work from. Here, she has taken the barely coherent scraps offered her--if you stop to think about the character of Hannah for more than a few minutes, the utter absurdity of the role only becomes more and more evident--and somehow forges them into a performance that is both real and viable despite the fact that you can’t really shake the feeling that her work here (as it is to a lesser extent in the upcoming “Revolutionary Road”) is more about getting her a long-overdue Oscar (after five nominations) than anything else. Even so, as blatant award-baiting performances go, this one is as good as they get and when she is on the screen, her fierce and deeply committed performance is almost enough to make you forget just how silly the rest of “The Reader” really is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17060&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/25/08 02:02:43
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User Comments

12/28/11 dan Started watching en route, didn´t know Winslet was Winslet, so excellent performance. 4 stars
4/13/11 Evie I don't understand why he didn't tell her he would set her up in an apt.& take care of her. 4 stars
4/13/10 daveyt I can see why some might not rate it, I do however, so there! 4 stars
3/30/10 IndyFan You're missing it. 5 stars
3/03/10 jackie i still can't get over not just admitting she can't read instead of life in prison. 4 stars
9/22/09 A Burke Statutory rape! Why the suicide? Oscar bait 2 stars
9/11/09 BTC Newcomer Kross shows remarkable range, and Winslet re-proves that she's the next Streep. 4 stars
7/29/09 MP Bartley Powerhouse performance from Winslet barely elevates it above movie of the week stuff. 3 stars
7/08/09 jason Winslet teaching Kross how to make love is awesome 5 stars
6/27/09 gandalf terrible slow ass film, another holocaust oscar bait film 1 stars
6/21/09 jana I didnt care for it all the things critics have said it was to evoke i saw none of it 2 stars
6/11/09 tung ton winslet deserved oscar; first nazi child molester pic with heart 5 stars
5/16/09 Danny Nice performance from Winslet. Movie just a tiny notch above average. 3 stars
5/13/09 Colin M I thought Winslet's performance would be better than the actual movie but both were amazing 5 stars
4/21/09 malcolm moving and maddening at the same time 5 stars
4/03/09 Meep A lesser film than it wants to be 3 stars
3/17/09 jim kate's always great to watch; decent melodrama 4 stars
2/20/09 R.W. Welch Neatly plotted, tho old Mike and young Mike don't look at all alike. 4 stars
2/16/09 Smitty A quite original love story displaying human frailty at it's worst. 5 stars
2/02/09 Piz unecessarily gratuitous at times but touching and well-developing. 4 stars
1/28/09 Sean Stangland She'd rather take the heat for 300 murders than admit she can't read?!? What a strange film 2 stars
1/14/09 FrankNFurter Touching and surprisingly poignant film.Probably the best in a long time! 5 stars
1/03/09 henry Lunde very moving and heartrending I loved it 5 stars
12/26/08 Tom David Kross gave an honest & remarkable performance. 5 stars
12/14/08 Doreen liked it alot 4 stars
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  10-Dec-2008 (R)
  DVD: 07-Apr-2009


  DVD: 07-Apr-2009

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