© 2009 Ray Wong
Spanning almost four decades in post-war Germany, The Reader is a straightforward drama that examines the complex issue of shame and guilt.
Michael (David Kross) is studious student living in Berlin, Germany. A chance meeting between him and tram operator Hanna (Kate Winslet) changes his world. Michael becomes obsessed with the her, who is in her 30s, and soon they have an affair that lasts for about a year. Michael is an avid reader, and Hanna asks him to read to him all sorts of wonderful stories and poetry.
Eventually the affair comes to an abrupt end when Hanna moves away; Michael is heartbroken. He later goes on to become a law student, but he's still hung up on his first lover, who taught him everything he wanted to know about women and sex. When his criminal law professor takes them to a trial, Michael is shaken to see Hanna again, only this time she is one of the defendants accused of heinous war-crimes. Hanna's lack of remorse for her actions shocks and devastates Michael. Yet, he possesses a piece of important information that may save Hanna from a death sentence. Ashamed of his affair and haunted by Hanna's past, Michael decides to keep his mouth shut. In turn, Hanna is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Years and a failed marriage later, Michael (Ralph Fiennes) returns to Berlin and rekindles with his childhood. Tormented with guilt and shame, he reads the books to a tape recorder and sends the cassettes to Hanna in prison. She listens the tapes and realizes how much Michael still loves her, and that gives her a purpose in life. However, still ashamed and torn by his sense of justice, Michael refuses to write to Hanna. Eventually their paths cross again but their lives are so vastly different now.
Ralph Fiennes (The Duchess) is known for his solemn, introverted dramatic roles. Here, he doesn't disappoint. He plays the emotionally stunted adult Michael solidly. Michael is incapable of having meaningful, deep connection with anyone, including his own family. Fiennes's subtle portrayal doesn't fail to convey that deep emotional scar and remorse. Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road), although billed in a supporting role, gives a tour-de-force leading role performance as Hanna. She's at once cold, stern, distant, and kind, warm, and sympathetic. Hanna's world views and values are warped by her upbringing and circumstances, but Winslet amazes by revealing so much humanity an humility, even as the truth about the character can be truly horrendous.
German actor David Kross (Adam and Eve) is affecting as young Michael. It's a challenging role playing someone on the verge of manhood and yet still a child at heart. Kross's Michael is naive, sweet, obsessive, determined and utterly in love with Hanna. His eventual devastation is heartfelt and sympathetic. At a young age, he also takes tremendous risk in doing many sex scenes with the older Winslet. The supporting cast also includes Lena Olin (Awake) as a Holocaust survivor -- her brief appearance offers a stark reflection to the core story -- and Susanne Lothar (Amen) as Michael's concerned mother.
Based on Bernhard Schlink's novel and written by David Hare (The Hours), the screenplay has a clear three-part structure and adheres to the themes of shame and guilt. It doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable nature of the relationship between Michael and Hanna. At the same time, it doesn't try to preach or judge. It just is. The mystery in the second act unfolds nicely, and the conflicts and revelations are palpable. The third act is a bit weak compared to the other two. There really isn't a lot of explanation about the characters' motivations and reasoning, and sometimes it feels very frustrating, especially with the character of Michael. The man is so emotionally conflicted and stunted that we just want to run over there and shake him. Hanna's character, however, is very well-drawn. We feel tremendous sympathy for her and yet we can't really condone what she did. She is a true victim of her past and future, and every day she's living with the consequences.
The novel and screenplay also explore the themes of guilt and shame fully without being on the nose. The characters, by and large, and driven by their shames and guilts. Yet, it's a bit unclear why, for example, Hanna would rather go to prison than to own up to her shame. And Michael would eventually live most of his adult life wallowing in his own shame and guilt. Such powerful and useless emotions. Still, I think the film does a remarkable job dissecting shame and guilt.
Director David Daldry (The Hours) has done a great job bringing the story to life. His direction is focused, effective and affecting. His camera also doesn't shy from the truth, whether it is about the illicit affairs between the woman and the boy, or the horrendous truth at the trial, or Michael's behaviors as a man. Some of the sex scenes could be very uncomfortable for people who are not ready (although David Kross was eighteen when he made the film). That said, I give great kudos to Daldry for being truthful but nonjudgmental, and to both Kross and Winslet for being fearless in their portrayal of the characters.
The Reader is also about the love of words. As a writer, I can appreciate the underlying theme of literacy and one's relationship with literature and words, and how they can both enlighten and hurt. While I wish the filmmakers had fleshed out some parts of the film and explored the themes more directly, I think The Reader is a solid film with outstanding performances, especially from Winslet. And I can't wait to read the book.
Stars: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Susanne Lothar
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: David Hare (based on Bernhard Schlink's novel)
Distributor: Weinstein Company
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality, nudity
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10