"I can't live without you. The thought of leaving you kills me. Do you love me?"
The Reader is one of those motion pictures which feels specifically tailored for a December release. An adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 international bestseller, this is a mature historical drama laced with nudity, compelling themes, suppressed emotion and a few twists. It's quite telling that producer Harvey Weinstein rushed the film's production to ensure its place in the 2008 Oscar race. At any other time of the year, such a movie would frankly feel out of place. Directed by Stephen Daldry (his first feature since 2002's The Hours), The Reader is blatant Oscar bait, but the makers' overconfidence in their product is palpable from the outset...and the result is closer to a near miss than a rousing success. While Daldry's Oscar-nominated film is brimming with emotion and provocative moral ambiguity in the context of a melodrama, The Reader is an unrelenting journey into dreariness and one-note drama with thinly-drawn characters. This is strictly by-the-numbers, conventional Oscar bait which quickly descends into abject boredom. Not skilful enough to be genuinely engaging, and truly lacking in substance, this is a cold fish of a film which falls short of the greatness for which it strives. It's even strangely detached from emotion when it should've been brimming with poignancy. The Reader is not a particularly bad movie per se...it's just an average, boring one. It's frankly bewildering that this film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
The mainstay of the story begins in Germany in 1958, when 15 year old Michael Berg (Kross) falls ill on the street and is comforted by a stranger named Hanna (Winslet). Months later, after he overcomes his grave sickness, Michael returns to thank Hanna for her kindness. But the young man finds himself attracted to this older woman who willingly beds the overeager virgin. This brief, sensual, passionate affair combines sex with foreplay during which Michael reads passages of literature to Hanna. It is throughout this section that the film alternates between chapters and sex, sex and chapters. This leads to the inevitable heartbreak when, despite their intense bond, Hanna mysteriously disappears. Eight years later, and Michael is a student at law school. Through a coincidence barely allowable in a movie like this, his law class is given the chance to witness a Nazi war crimes trial...and Hanna is one of the defendants. Michael figures out a secret which would exonerate his former lover, but is too embarrassed to share it. The story unnecessarily stretches into Michael's adulthood (now played by Ralph Fiennes) when he has become a man plagued by relentless regret and shame.
The Reader is notable for its first-rate performances, the handsome photography, and the elegant music. The preceding praise may sound generic, but so is the movie. Production values are admirable, and everything is brilliantly subdued, but nothing pierces, shocks, engages or challenges. The interesting undertones and themes are occasionally compelling, but for the most part everything interesting dissolves into disconcerting blandness.
If there was any real passion or feeling behind it, The Reader might've felt like more than a mere space-filler on the inexorable march towards Oscar night. Despite the best efforts of the three talented main actors and a competent director, The Reader just lies on the screen demanding the audience to care and engage but never offering them much to grasp onto. Daldry also appears to have a difficult time with the film's tonal shifts. The director makes a peculiar choice to paint Michael's raw sexual awakening on a dull palette of bleached, muted colours. Regardless of all the nudity and constant love-making, The Reader is about as sexy as a brick wall. The tone additionally contradicts Kross' openhearted, wholly amorous performance as the smitten teenager. The picture is also structured in a pointlessly choppy and non-linear fashion, losing momentum and focus once the proceedings move beyond the trial. The segments taking place in the '90s lack the foundation of the preceding chapters. A viewer can understand that as an adult, Michael is still obsessed with Hanna, and his obsession isn't healthy, but that's virtually everything we manage to glean from about 40 minutes worth of film. Ralph Fiennes is a fine actor (who also starred in 2008's In Bruges and The Duchess), but his portion of the film is let down by the screenplay.
Reportedly, The Reader is a predominantly faithful adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's book when it comes to major plot points (and it gets points for it), but the devil is in the details. Intricacies and nuances that exist in the novel and which can be presented in the first-person narrative are absent from this more straightforward motion picture.
The first two thirds of The Reader are by far the strongest. These scenes (which chronicle the affair and the impact the revelations about Hanna's past have upon Michael), provide rich drama and pose some troubling philosophical questions, even if Daldry grossly mishandles the material (why he was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for this film is a mystery for the ages). It has to be said that the slow pace of the film also allows an audience to realise the gaping plot holes. (An illiterate person able to work as a ticket checker on a tram?)
As stated previously, producer Harvey Weinstein forced director Daldry to rush the production. At times, this intensified schedule shows in the finished product. A lot of the dramatic transitions aren't as tightly focused as they should be. The giant leaps between timelines are baffling, particularly the initial transition from 1995 to 1958. Character motivations are seldom explored in David Hare's shallow script (also curiously nominated for an Oscar). The characters are therefore presented merely as two-dimensional caricatures. Hanna is just a horny male's fantasy, while Michael is merely a horny teenager. Both of the aforementioned choose to withhold crucial information in fear of embarrassment. As we can't understand the motivations of the characters, we don't understand why Hanna chooses to face a lifetime in prison when a simple piece of humiliating information could soften her sentence. Crucially, we don't care either. A suicide also happens towards the film's dénouement, but why this character chooses to take their life is unknown. Most of these faults are due to the film's faithfulness to its source material, but this doesn't excuse them.
What does work is the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges (the latter coming onto the feature after the production schedule was changed by the producer and the former suddenly dropped out due to scheduling conflicts). The cinematographers were nominated for an Academy Award for their great work.
Both Kate Winslet and David Kross commit unequivocally to their roles. Winslet plays the character of Hanna throughout the entire movie; going through a gauntlet of old age make-up in the process. Winslet's Oscar-winning portrayal of Hanna is note-perfect, but she's unable to overcome the thinly-sketched nature of her character - the actress is adrift with no coherent character to grab onto. Kross and Ralph Fiennes are engaging enough, but the character of Michael Berg isn't much more interesting than Hanna; the transition from callow youth to guilt-ridden man never made clear.
In a supporting role, Bruno Ganz is authoritative as the law professor who poses pertinent questions to Michael about the human condition. Hannah Hertzsprung is also marvellous in the small but pivotal role of adult Michael's daughter. The acting across the board is great, but the contrivance inherent in playing this German tale in English for an international audience detracts from its authenticity. It isn't as affecting as, say, The Lives of Others or Downfall.
The weakest addition to the 2008 Oscar race, The Reader is a plodding, meandering drama plagued by a glacially slow, shallow screenplay. Still, there's enough intelligent material here to make it worthwhile as a meditation about the post-World War II implications of the Holocaust upon the German psyche. It also works as a tale of the tragedy suffered by one man because, at a young, vulnerable stage time of his life, he fell in love with the wrong person. While never making excuses for those who committed atrocities in the Holocaust, The Reader becomes the latest Nazi-related feature to question whether redemption is a possibility for a person responsible for monstrous acts. The stylish cinematography, coupled with Nico Muhly's florid, somewhat overbearing score makes this motion picture seem like the type of movie one ought to take seriously. Don't be fooled by the elegant exterior, though, as The Reader never fulfils its promises of relevance and depth. R.I.P. Anthony Mingella and Sydney Pollack.
"I'm not frightened. I'm not frightened of anything. The more I suffer, the more I love. Danger will only increase my love. It will sharpen it, forgive its vice. I will be the only angel you need. You will leave life even more beautiful than you entered it. Heaven will take you back and look at you and say: Only one thing can make a soul complete and that thing is love."