The Reader Directed by: Stephen Daldry Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Hannah Herzsprung Running Time: 2 hrs, 2 mins Rating: R
Plot: The story of a young man’s affair with a retired SS Guard, and how time and consequence can tear apart pair of unlikely lovers.
Who’s It For?: For people who can get past the inaccuracy with which modern filmmakers egocentrically depict foreign countries. Didn’t Germans speak, you know, German in the 1950s? Just wondering.
Expectations: There has been a lot of Oscar talk regarding Kate Winslet’s performance in this film. Though she’s great, it’s in a very traditional sense. This is her period piece tragedy. All great actresses are granted the opportunity to star in one of these and it usually earns them at least one nomination. This is all well and good, but the real star here is newcomer David Kross. There are few movie-going experiences better than witnessing the introduction of a mesmerizing new talent.
Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz: Winslet’s career began with a titanic shift from obscurity to mega stardom and since then she’s had a difficult time finding her niche. Hanna Schmitz is about as troubled an onscreen persona as you’re likely to se this year, and if anyone’s got the chops to bring her to life, it's Kate. She does what she can, and largely succeeds, but it’s tough for her character to find the energy to lure sympathy from what’s likely to be a judgmental audience. This role was a tall order, and few actors have the heightened talent to deal with a storyline as loaded as this one. The life in Schmitz’s eyes are gone, but Winslet impresses us, doing what she can with the vacancy left behind. Score: 8
Ralph Fiennes as Michael Berg: Michael Berg is split into two halves (one younger, one – Ralph Fiennes). This is a role that’s demanding for the elder representative because of the baggage he has to imagine having gone through on screen. Fiennes can be mesmerizing with the right material, but there’s little here for him to dazzle us with. Still, broken hearts are best explained with silence, and he gives us much of this. This is depressing, but this is a film about the power of depression based on irreversible circumstances. There simply isn’t much asked of Fiennes to further establish the character of Michael Berg. He pouts over a series of events he’s never literally subjected to. Yes, this is the essence of acting, but there’s something forgettable about the distance between the actor and the actor far better embodied in his younger counterpart. Score: 8
David Kross as Young Michael Berg: Who is this kid? You will want to know after seeing him bare all (sometimes literally) in a star-making performance as a bright-eyed youth whose outlook on life is dimmed immediately as a result of a chance meeting with one Hanna Schmitz. This initiates a slew of events that fall like dominos as Berg passes through an already awkward adolescence into jaded young adulthood. It’s a daunting task for a young actor to embody both the anonymous innocence of fifteen, and the stubbled woes of a law student all within an hour of screen time. Kross is a wunderkind of chameleonic thespianism. You know you’re watching the same young man portray a slightly older Michael Berg, but simply can’t believe how effectively he portrays how monumentally depressing events can shift the perspective through which a guy can see the world. Score: 9
Talking: Yes, it’s strange that everyone in this film speaks English throughout. Why director Stephen Daldry decided to forego subtitles probably has more to do with Winslet’s Hollywood prowess than anything, but the believability of time pieces become solidified by authenticity (Schindler’s List) rather than their accessibility (this film). It’s easier to listen than to read, but any audience watching this film probably wouldn’t have minded dealing with subtitles: You’ll understand why as the film progresses. Score: 6
Sights Europe is always seen through the scope of dreariness. Overcast, drab, cold. With few exceptions, this is what you get. It aids the plot’s darker edge, but the few scenes where we actually see sunlight adds a great deal to the experience. You can only deal with so much gray. Even tragedies require certain, intermittent splashes of color. Score: 7
Sounds: Intimate moments are best delivered hushed. There’s more electricity in silence than with sound, especially during love scenes. Those depicted in this film are hard to watch (for so many law-related reasons), and the experience is made easier by the decision to trim the dialogue and let the actors virtually mime the intensity conceived in the most passionate situations. Score: 6
Best Scene: When the elder Michael berg gazes out his apartment window, he encounters a passing train, and the steady gaze of his younger self [Kross]. It’s an innovative visual time-swap that fuels the pace of the film.
Ending: The ending will be an obvious one, but this won’t necessarily disappoint you. The entire film is a struggle between garnering sympathy for a character you’re not sure deserves it. The Reader’s conclusion possesses the kind of finality that leaves you with a bittersweet taste in your mouth, and no further questions.
Questions: There is little explanation regarding the initiation of Berg and Schmitz’s relationship. We are clued into Hannah’s need to nurse youths, but that hardly validates her very forward seduction of a boy nearly half her age.
Rewatchability: Yes, you will want to watch it again, but it’s not necessary in a theater. Even then, it’s a rental—not a purchase.
Films that tackle controversial historical issues are usually given the benefit of the doubt by the Academy. They are shoe-ins for Oscar nominations, and this is a largely justified reality. What bugs me about The Reader is that it’s just another film showcasing great acting achievements, rather than a seamlessly delivered story. That just doesn’t sit well. I have a hard time objectively evaluating films that boost its actor’s respective resumes instead of its own impressiveness. What we have here is a collective of well-executed thespian-deliveries that usually succeed in presenting an above average Hollywood movie. But that’s as far as I’ll go. Despite Winslet’s daring performance as the main character, the only real transcendent achievement is Kross’. The kid gives us a memorable reminder of how quickly star-quality can be discovering in a newcomer. His time is now. If only the same could be said for this film.
Final Score: 6/10