Old 01-21-2009, 07:05 PM
The Reader

The Reader (2008)

The trailers for this film made it hard to tell what it was going to be about. There is an affair between a young man and an older woman. Then out of nowhere there is a trial. Those are major parts of the film, but it is also a film about morals, and the choices we make in regard to those morals.

In 1958 Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) gets ill on the way home from school. Hanna (Kate Winslet) notices him and helps him into her apartment. Thus begins a very intimate affair between the two. One of the peculiarities of this affair, besides the large age gap, is that Hanna likes to have people read to her. Michael is always willing to do this and never asks why. When Michael comes to visit her one day, he discovers that Hanna has mysteriously vanished without a trace.

In 1966, Michael is now in law school. He and his class get the opportunity to attend a trial, and to Michael's surprise, Hanna is one of the defendants. She has been charged as a Nazi war criminal along with several other women. The rest of the film shows the conclusion of this trial and how Michael reacts to it.

At one point in the film, Michael's professor tells him "Society thinks it operates by something called morality. But they don't. They operate by something called law." However, it is morality that is the more pressing issue to Michael. He has figured out a crucial piece of information that could essentially help Hanna in the trial, but he doesn't know if he should present it or not. The professor says that Michael has an obvious obligation, but he does not know Michael's past.

Is Michael more conflicted by the fact that Hanna is a possible war criminal or for the fact that she simply disappeared without leaving so much as a note for him? We don't really know. We do know, however, that the summer that they spent together meant an awful lot to him. He would break off engagements with his friends, even on his birthday, to be with her. But was it all for sex, or was there something more to it than that?

The companionship that is formed between these two characters appears to be something that both of them need. Michael is a young boy who doesn't appear to communicate much with his family. Hanna is a lonely woman who has no one else to turn to and always has her past looming behind her. They both needed someone and they just happened to run into each other at the right moment. Then there is the sudden disappearance. We don't get to see Michael's reaction; at least not for several years.

The film's structure is fascinating. We start in 1995 Germany, where Michael is grown up and played by Ralph Fiennes. We then go back to the story of the affair and the trial. The remainder of the film shows us just how much Michael's life has been affected by his summer with Hanna. We can tell that the affair obviously affected him quite a bit.

The screenplay goes even further to show this affect. It was written by David Hare and based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink. After the trial, we hear of how Michael was married years later but it did not work out. We are never shown Michael's wife throughout the entire film, making it appear as though the only woman for him has always been Hanna.

Another big theme that pops up in this film is how the past always seems to catch up with us, or that we can even catch up with it sometimes. Hanna tells us that she never gave a thought about what she did during the war until the trial, but now the law is forcing her to remember those dark times, whereas her morality regarding the situation seems unperturbed. After Hanna's disappearance, Michael has another chance meeting with Hanna when he goes to see the trial. Hanna's part in his life is obviously not over. We're not sure if it will ever be over.

After the trial, he has tried and failed at marriage, but Hanna has never left his thoughts. His time spent with Hanna has major influence on the choices that he goes on to make. He wants to set things as right as he possibly can, but to do this, he needs to go head to head with his past. His moral choice doesn't leave just because the trial is over. It is one that will stay with him his whole life. 3/4 stars.
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Old 01-24-2009, 11:05 AM

(Stephen Daldry, 2008)

Sometimes, a movie suffers from undeserved prejudices just because it doesn’t fit a certain mold. Over a decade ago, James Cameron’s Titanic was released. It became the most successful movie of all time at the box office, was critically acclaimed and went on to win a record 11 Academy Awards. And then, the backlash began. People, even some who loved it at first, began degrading the film, nitpicking it to pieces, and many were claiming that it was “one of the worst movies”. The reasons were plentiful – too long, too sappy, melodramatic, hugely successful at awards shows such as the Oscars at the expense of smaller, better films, and others. But now, eleven years later, looking back it doesn’t seem like that bad a film at all. Now, though, we have a new controversy – and curiously, Kate Winslet is at the center of this one as well – The Reader has won the coveted fifth Oscar nomination for Best Picture, instead of other more worthy candidates such as The Dark Knight or WALL·E. Does it deserve the nomination? No, probably not. But ten years for now, I can only hope that people will look back on The Reader and realize the truth – it’s not that bad a film at all. In fact, it’s rather quite good.

There’s no doubt about it – where American drama filmmaking is often very in your face, obvious and insistent, British filmmaking is far closer to the European faction in its elegant, delicate subtlety. The Reader is one such example of this impeccable English filmmaking, and benefits from the best England has to offer: Director Stephen Daldry, who was a long-time theatre director before moving to motion pictures recently, and who has previously directed two excellent films – the under-appreciated underdog story Billy Elliot, and the even more underrated cinematic masterpiece that is The Hours; screenwriter Sir David Hare, also a long-time theatre professional, in this case a playwright; Roger Deakins, who is one of if not the best cinematographer working today; and at least two of the best acting talents Britain has to offer, Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. Literally nothing in the film is blunt: ideas and themes in David Hare’s screenplay are very subdued and under-the-radar, the acting is not bombastic and melodramatic but rather restrained and calculated, the cinematography serves its purpose but for the most part doesn’t particularly stand out (Deakins, who won an Oscar nomination for his work on the film, should have been nominated for either of the other two films he shot this year, Revolutionary Road or Doubt), and in all, I actually felt that it was this subtlety and restraint that really held the source material back from true greatness.

That said, the film does contain many elements that come together marvelously, starting out from the screenplay. Like another excellent script from 2008, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader’s almost extreme and radical subtlety dictates that none of its rich, resonant, powerful themes burst out of its seams, but rather remain bubbling right under the surface. Many critical viewers unfortunately interpret this gentle, restrained subtlety and nuance as “lack of content” and “emotional coldness”, but I actually felt that this was one of the film’s greatest assets. From a distance, it may seem to the simple-minded that the film is about the Holocaust and the horrors that occurred in it, but that couldn’t be further from the point. As evident in a very short and easy-to-miss scene near the beginning of the film, the true underlying message of the movie is about the dark nature of secrets, and the fact that sometimes, in order to keep secret something that we are ashamed of, we end up doing far more atrocious things than those that we are trying to hide. This message can easily be applicable to the Holocaust, in that because of the German people’s shame that they let an atrocity of this magnitude happen on their watch, they didn’t do anything to stop it in time. Then again, the message could also be applied on a personal, human level as well, and it is this universality that lends it even more weight and relevance.

In addition to the inherently rich screenplay, the film is also carried and elevated by its performances. At the center, and also rightfully attracting the most attention, is Kate Winslet’s simply riveting, intricate and quietly heartbreaking performance. It’s one of the finest acting moments of her undeniably illustrious career – Winslet is my favourite actress of all time and I don’t think she has ever delivered a bad or even a mediocre performance; that said, this is definitely one of her shining moments, and aside from sporting an excellent German accent, Winslet demonstrates an incredible ability to embody her character, who is so caught up in her own shame, both for things she had no say in but also for atrocities that she participated in by choice that she has become a closed shell, hiding all of her feelings behind a pale sheet of glass, although she lets just enough of them seep through her eyes to give us a hint of what’s bottled up inside. It is easily one of the best performances of the year. Also worth mentioning are the two actors portraying the young and old versions of the protagonist Michael Berg, David Kross (young) and Ralph Fiennes (old), both of who deliver stellar performances for entirely different reasons. Kross is wonderful in showing the transition from the youthful, lively, passionate Kross to the jaded, introverted and emotionally distant Kross, emotionally damaged by his unrequited love for Winslet’s character, Hannah Schmitz, who one day just disappeared after their whirlwind affair one Summer. And Ralph Fiennes is remarkable in his portrayal of the older version of Berg, by now completely world-weary, isolated from everyone around him and emotionally cold and dysfunctional. It is another one of Fiennes’ immaculately subtle performances that, although thoroughly excellent goes completely unnoticed by awards circles.

The Reader is a good film, but not a great one. It’s subtlety and restraint both in its screenplay and in its performances is terrific, but ultimately I felt that the film may have held too much back, keeping us not quite riveted by the plot or characters, as intricate as they are, but rather more objectively but distantly interested. Although a definite beneficiary from excellent performances, in particular Kate Winslet’s enthralling, haunting portrayal, The Reader is also somewhat lacking in its more technical aspects, and while a good, entertaining and interesting film, I can think of at least five other films from 2008 more worthy of the coveted Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards than The Reader.

RATING: 8/10.
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