Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity, 120 minutes
Controversial but powerful and superbly acted, "The Reader" again shows Winslet is one of the best
"The Reader" is certainly a controversial film. There are not one, but two central themes that will leave people talking. First, it features an explicit love affair between an underage boy and an older woman, and second it deals with some aspects of the Holocaust, a theme that comes with its own controversy.
Yet after seeing "The Reader" there will be no controversy about it: Kate Winslet is one of this generation's finest actresses, and this along with her upcoming drama "Revolutionary Road" gives her a chance at two Oscar nominations this year. "The Reader" is superbly acted, sadly compelling and poignant.
"The Reader" is told in flashback by an late thirtysomething German Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). The story opens in 1958 when Michael is just 15 (played by David Kross) and he becomes ill on his way home from school. He is assisted by stranger 36-year old Hannah Schmitz (Winslet). After he recovers from his illness he goes back to thank Hannah and realizes he's attracted to her. They begin a very passionate but illicit love affair that lasts the summer. The intelligent Michael begins reading to her before their lovemaking, mainly because Hannah is also secretly illiterate. Their affair ends when Hannah is suddenly transferred to another location.
Michael goes on to law school in Berlin and as part of their coursework go to observe an actual war crimes trial. Little does Michael know that one of the defendants on trial is Hannah, who served as a guard at Auschwitz years earlier, and years before their relationship. Hannah is sent to prison for her crimes and over the years the two begin reconnecting, as Michael is the only contact Hannah has with the outside world, and the two don't realize the impact they've had on each other over the years.
"The Reader" is a superb but depressing film based on the fictional novel by German attorney Bernhard Schlink. Director Stephen Daldry and David Hare, who directed and wrote "The Hours," adapts Schlink's book into a poignant and powerful film that has a few flaws, including a slightly uneven tone and a very sad ending. Excellent performances from Winslet and Fiennes in a small, supporting role as the morose, elder Michael carry an otherwise dour film.
The film's most controversial scenes come in the first act, when the younger Michael (played by Kross, an actual teenager) and Hannah engage in their affair. Daldry seemingly holds nothing back and while the scenes are handled with a nice romantic edge, they're also still explicit. But the scenes of Kross reading to Winslet are the most memorable scenes in the film, and lay some poignant groundwork for later scenes.
While "The Reader" may evoke romantic memories "Sophie's Choice" in its initial chapters, later scenes may evoke memories of "Judgment at Nuremburg." These scenes, while less compelling than the romantic sections, are still well-handled and in particular show Winslet's skill as an actress, especially her ability to invoke sympathy with her eyes and to speak with her facial expressions.
Allowing the audience to the angle from the perpretator's eyes and not the victim's is indeed something different, and much like the book, "The Reader" largely keeps its distance from the details of the camps and the crimes themselves. The person nor the crimes are condoned but it does give the audience the ability to connect with a largely sympathetic figure, and Winslet makes it work.
As the younger Michael, Kross captures his character's innocence well, while Fiennes is suitably dour as the older Michael in a fine, low-key performance that could very well see him nominated. One thing is for certain, though - Winslet will almost certainly be nominated for her restrained, pitch-perfect performance that allows her to age from her 30s to early 60's.
"The Reader" provides important messages about the impact - good or bad - we have on others and the secrets we often keep even those closest around us. It's also a powerful reminder that criminal acts also have consequences, regardless of who commits them. "The Reader" is well worth a look and is memorable for its strong acting and story.