Reader, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 02/28/09 21:27:46

"Another feather in Kate's acting cap, but that's about it."
3 stars (Just Average)

It’s probably worth sitting through "The Reader" just for the late scene between Lena Olin, as an Auschwitz survivor, and Ralph Fiennes, who knows someone who was at Auschwitz in a different capacity.

At 53, Olin has lost none of her sensuality and none of her wild-card scariness; I almost felt sorry for poor Ralph Fiennes (no slouch himself, let’s remember), who sits and listens and somehow seems very small as she intones, “Nothing came out of the camps. Nothing.” She means, of course, nothing redeeming, nothing that would make sense of it. In just a few minutes, Olin sketches a woman who went through hell as a girl and has no patience for anything that would trivialize her suffering. Give this woman an Oscar.

Not that I begrudge Kate Winslet her own award. As Hanna Schmitz, a surly tram ticket-taker who has an affair with 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross), Winslet speaks and moves like someone carrying a terrible weight in her gut. In time, we discover that Hanna was a guard at Auschwitz, and is culpable for the deaths of hundreds of Jews in a church fire. This, however, is not entirely the source of her shame. Without any obvious Oscar moments — Hanna’s pride wouldn’t allow them — Winslet creates a flawed and fascinating villain, an ordinary woman who let herself drift into evil in order to hide something.

The Reader isn’t really about her, though. It’s mainly about Michael (played by Fiennes in adulthood), who finds himself haunted by this haunted woman. The problem is that Michael is fairly colorless — regardless of his age, he remains, on some level, a lovestruck boy fixated on the first woman who took him to bed. Somewhere outside the movie’s purview, Michael becomes a lawyer, marries, has a daughter, divorces, and somehow morphs from the recessive, hangdog David Kross to the rather more intense and angular Ralph Fiennes (to whom elegant romantic yearning comes a little too easily by now). Meanwhile, Hanna kinda sorta ages, until near the end, when she’s supposed to be in her late sixties, she looks like a mostly-unlined Kate Winslet with a scraggly gray dye job. The computer-generated aging miracles of Benjamin Button were not available to this production or its budget, I guess.

Under Stephen Daldry’s nondescript direction, the movie is a passive and too-tasteful meditation on guilt and its lasting, deformative power. Hanna could’ve saved those Jews but didn’t; Michael could’ve saved Hanna from a harsher prison sentence but didn’t. At the movie’s center is the big revelation — why Hanna found herself working at Auschwitz, why she wasn’t guilty to the extent that she was accused of, why she’d rather spend her life in jail than confess. It seems a tad overblown, especially in light of her actions; it’s also a little too neat a metaphor.

Still, Winslet and Olin — and the always-welcome Bruno Ganz as Michael’s law professor — kick "The Reader" into higher gear. One of the year’s five best films, however, it is not.

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