Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Reader: No Easy Answers

From time to time, a movie refuses, either through ambiguity or complexity, to allow the viewer to make easy choices: Stephen Daldry's The Reader is one of them. The "easy choice" seems rather obvious, given the film's plot--an older woman seduces a teenager, later abandons him without a word, and is eventually put on trial and convicted for her crimes as an SS guard during WWII. Pretty simple, right? She's a terrible person and should be punished, which is in fact the response most characters in the film express. The trouble is that David Hare's screenplay, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, invests the character of Hanna Schmitz (played by Kate Winslet) with too much humanity to allow her to be easily written off.

The "reader" of the film is Michael Berg (played by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes), the young man whose life is turned upside down by his affair with Hanna. After she rescues him in the streets of postwar Berlin when he comes down with scarlet fever, the two begin a torrid affair based on physical passion and reading. Michael begins to read aloud to the illiterate Hanna, providing some of the most touching and provocative scenes in the film, and underscoring the differences between the generation that came of age during the reign of Hitler and the generation that came of age in a progressive postwar Germany. During the first hour of the film, the audience has no clue about Hanna's past, simply that she is an irascible and cranky street car conductor. In fact, when we see her on a cycling holiday with Michael, she appears quite happy and carefree--a nice contrast for the downturn her life will soon take.

The moments of crisis come when Hanna is put on trial for the murder of hundreds of Jewish prisoners during an air raid in 1944. Although accused by the court of writing the order allowing the group to be killed, she makes no attempt to vindicate herself by mentioning her illiteracy, and is sentenced to life in prison. Michael, who attends the trial as a law student, refuses to come forward with the knowledge that would allow Hanna to go free. The refusal of Schlink's novel and Hare's screenplay to make either of these characters seem exceptional or out of the ordinary--both were caught in the machinery of history and forced to make impossibly difficult decisions --reveals the fact that history, both public and personal, is always more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Kate Winslet is marvelous as Hanna, somehow making a character who should be despicable and hateful come off as deeply human (though deeply flawed). Her range and versatility is comparable to that of Meryl Streep or Jodie Foster, and it's clear that she has matured as an actress and will be a major Hollywood player for the foreseeable future. David Kross is also excellent as the young Michael, alternating between impish boyishness (think of a somewhat serious Ferris Bueller) and brooding antiheroism (a la James Dean or Brando). Ralph Fiennes, playing the older Michael, never seems to age! Though, I feel that if there is a weak link in the cast, it's him--his delivery and range of motion often seem forced. Karoline Herfurth is also great as Michael's sexy and liberated fellow law student.

Don't expect The Reader to be your typical "all Germans in WWII were evil" type of film. It explores the inner lives of people caught in extraordinary circumstances and their tendencies to stay secretive, even when opening up might set them free.

The Reader is rated R for nudity and adult language.

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