Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reading Is Fundamental

Another day, another Nazi. Today's film features the winning combination of National Socialism and literacy and it's called ...

The Reader (d. Stephen Daldry)

It's the summer of 1958 and young Michael Berg is enjoying a dream come true. He's a teenager being introduced to adulthood through an affair with Hanna, an earthy, sensual woman more than a decade his senior. Hanna helped Michael when he was deathly ill on the street and after he recovered, he came to thank her.

See youngsters. Politeness pays.

The sex is the thing, to be sure, but Michael is a studious fellow and in between ... let's use the word, "encounters" ... he pores over his schoolbooks and finds that Hanna likes it when he reads them to her. His literature class has him studying the classics, so she gets to indulge in Joyce's Ulysses, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and others. They end up connecting at a level more intimate than they would have had their affair been limited only to the ... encounters.

Then at the end of the summer Hanna gets promoted, moves away, and Michael is left with a beautiful -- if abruptly terminated -- memory. Flash forward a few years and Michael is an earnest law student observing court proceedings. As he takes in a tribunal hearing a case about war crimes committed by Auschwitz prison guards, he is shocked to spot Hanna among the defendants.

Stephen Daldry's The Reader explores Michael's conflicted feelings for Hanna and, through them, the very nature of morality and justice. How could this woman who was so kind to him, so important in his life, be the same person whose monstrous acts he hears described in court? Is it justice to take this otherwise good woman and punish her for (admittedly hideous) acts she performed in the ignorance of youth?

As Hanna, recent Golden Globe winner Kate Winslet is the movie's strongest asset. Brusque and frank in her sexuality, she doesn't seduce Michael so much as she tolerates him. At least at first. As the summer passes, her feelings grow more complicated and, perhaps fearing the very revelation that comes years later in court, she slips out of his life without saying good-bye.

With the passing of the years, Michael changes from the serious, studious David Kross to distant, clipped adulthood in the person of Ralph Fiennes. Kross is a first-time actor (at least, first time in a major role) and he doesn't seem up to the challenges of his role. He gazes at Hanna in court with the same pained expression he uses to indicate his illness in the early scenes.

Fiennes is anything but a first-timer, having delivered some of the finest performances of the past decade and a half. But here, he is overly disengaged. This is supposed to be a love story that crosses time, that defies morality and justice and Fiennes pours all the passion of a bored European aristocrat into it. At least Kross looks like he's enjoying the sex scenes.

By the time Michael grows into Fiennes, Hanna's circumstances keep them apart, so some distance is inevitable. Not this much.

It's appropriate, I suppose, that a film called The Reader would take a bookish, academic approach to this odd love story. It would have benefitted from a little more Hollywood and a little less library.

2 stars.

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