Reader, The (2008)
Release Date: December 12th, 2008 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Stephen Daldry Actors: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Jeanette Hain, Vijessna Ferkic, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin
he Reader” is off to a brilliant start with its convincing characters, superb acting, and looming tragedy. But it still seems to lose its sure footing as it heads toward a conclusion that feels part carelessly planned and mainly lacking direction. It ignores the most potent revelations to focus instead on a powerful romance that was successfully sustained only during the beginning. This uncertainty is witnessed again with the editing, as the order of events are jumbled on the timeline, and through an unexpectedly long ending, which detracts from the impact of the more poignant interludes – such as the undying love story that overshadows the historical importance of the war crimes trial, which sets up the heartbreaking reunion at the core of the plot.
In 1958, West Germany, a mysterious woman escorts 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) back to his home, after he becomes ill. Though diagnosed with scarlet fever and bedridden for three months, his recovery affords him time to seek out his secretive savior, Hanna (Kate Winslet), to thank her for her aid. Soon, the two begin an unlikely (and very graphic) affair that lasts the duration of the summer. Sticking with her former aura, Hanna is distant and uncompassionate, but Michael finds himself hopelessly in love (he insists on knowing her name by the third day they are together). Before each sexual tryst, Michael reads to Hanna, starting with his school assignments – including a German play, Homer’s “Odyssey,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “The Lady with the Little Dog” – and eventually even comic strips.
One day, Hanna vanishes, leaving Michael to return to school, study law, and carry on relationships with people his own age. In 1966, while attending a trial for German guard crimes against Jewish prisoners, he spies Hanna as one of the defendants, who had become involved with the SS shortly after ending their affair. Years later, torn between remembering the great flame they shared or condemning her for her crimes, Michael is haunted by the trial and determined to sort out his feelings of guilt and love.
It’s certainly a unique angle to show a sympathetic lead character who participated in Holocaust atrocities. As author Bernhard Schlink wrote about his novel, on which the film is based, “‘The Reader’ is not a story about redemption or forgiveness. It is about how my generation of Germans came to terms with what the generation before us had done.” He challenges the viewer with transcendent guilt and the quality of love to counter the complexity of monstrous actions undertaken by ordinary people. The adaptation is splendidly emotional and comes very close to being phenomenal, touching intermittently on the striking themes of something like “Sophie’s Choice.” The drawn-out conclusion is a meditation on the power of love and its ability to overcome exceptionally trying junctures – and even to beat time itself. Morally devastating and thought-provoking, but not emotionally demanding enough to attain instant masterpiece status, “The Reader” still boasts outstanding performances, a beautiful score, and a moving tale of complicated affections.
– Mike Massie