The title I have given this review does not reflect my opinion on her performance. There is no doubt that she delivers a great one again, but that the hype surrounding this film as been focussed on it is frankly ridiculous. I had previously highlighted the same phenomenon in relation to DEAN SPANLEY where an ageing Peter O’Toole was singled out to the extent that all commentary on the film was dominated by the fact he has been criminally overlooked in the Oscars for half a century. Another example is Sean Penn, who was all Oscar-hyped in MILK. Perhaps it’s just the time of year, but this kind of diversion from the content of a film is bad enough but in the case of THE READER it is criminal.
Based on a hugely important novel, THE READER is set in post WWII Germany and tells the story of Michael Berg. At the tender age of 15 he has a youthful affair with Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), a woman more than double his age. One day she disappears without warning. Deeply troubled by her disappearance, Michael nonetheless gets on with his life and goes on to study law. Soon a trial of SS officials gets underway and as a Michael is brought along to the trials by his Professor as an exercise in the relationship between law and ethics, but what he doesn’t realise is that one of the defendants is his former lover.
A beautifully poignant debate on law, ethics and coming to terms with the crimes of the past committed by those still around you, THE READER makes for compelling viewing. Aside from Winslet’s performance, which captures the cold reality of the existence of an SS bureaucrat with chilling believability, David Kross exudes the the exuberance and precocious emotional awareness of young Michael Berg with a deft capability I could never have anticipated and Ralph Fiennes is absolutely superb as the older Michael Berg who is to visit the ageing Schmitz in a bid to exorcise his own demons.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have any issues with the movie. Firstly, all the actors had a dialect coach to make sure they spoke properly. What’s wrong with this? They still spoke wrong! It’s all set in Germany but they spoke in English with a carefully cultivated German accent, and I cannot for the life of me see why that was necessary. It smacks of a compromise designed to allow the film to cast non-Germans and reach an audience who instantly dismiss arthouse movies: I find this ridiculous because the Oscars in the last couple of years have revealed how talented German actors and filmmakers are, and I refuse to believe that those who are narrow minded enough to ignore subtitle or (shudder) dubbed films will bother themselves with one themed around the guilt suffered by generations of Germans after the Holocaust.
Nonetheless, this is a worthy film and one that will haunt you for months with its fleeting and subtle examinations on morality, love and guilt. I stand by the belief that overlooking German actors (with the exception of David Kross) was wrong, but those who landed these wonderful roles have done brilliantly. What’s more, the gentle cinematography immerses you seamlessly into the series of important moments without relying on hyperbolic speeches, monologues and arguments. For those of you who enjoyed or are looking forward to MILK, this is an equally sincere and real look at a turbulent time in our shared global history. Plus it has the benefit of not relying on a single charismatic character, and thus not indulging too heavily in hero worship. I’m a strong believer that in films on such important subjects a light touch and a desire to provide more gentle nuances than showboating scenes rewards the audience much more, and THE READER is a success on this count. What’s more, if the hype is to be believed, it may see Kate Winslet rewarded too.
This article was first posted on January 3, 2009