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The Reader Review

In the pilot episode of Ricky Gervais’ brilliant show Extras, Kate Winslet cameos as herself, starring as a nun in a Holocaust movie. Ricky’s character Andy commends her on doing the film, “using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.” Winslet laughs it off, “No, I’m doing this because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust... Guaranteed an Oscar.”

Now she’ll probably get an Oscar for The Reader. Her sixth nomination, at the very least.

While it’s not exactly a Holocaust film, The Reader deals with the aftermath of the war, how those involved in the Nazi regime cope with living in a new Germany. Telling the love affair between an older woman and a teenager growing up in the sixties, the relationship represents that of the two generations separated by the war. The problematic age difference between them is the rocky bond between the socially conscious youngsters that came after the war and the parents/teachers who were a part of the war. Making the weight behind the generation gap more literal, the boy, Michael Berg, grows up to be a lawyer, while the woman, Hanna Schmitz, stands trial when it’s discovered that she was a Nazi guard at the concentration camps.

Stopping at five different time periods over the span of five decades, The Reader features a very unconvincing aging device. I’m not talking about the make-up process that turns Kate Winslet into a frail old woman in Hanna’s later years, but the switch between David Kross and Ralph Fiennes to show Michael aging from 23 to 33. It’s not just that they don’t look alike, but they don’t even feel like the same character; especially when Berg is supposed to have been somewhat stunted by his experience. He also lost his German accent in the process, but, you know…

The movie employs a completely unnecessary framing device, as well. Starting with the old Michael Berg, the film goes into flashback, then periodically jumps back and forth between the teenage Berg and the 52-year-old Berg in 1995, but only until Fiennes takes over completely. It’s a structure that adds nothing to the character’s experience. It smells of a compulsion to put Fiennes’ famous face in the movie as early as possible. The problem is that Fiennes’ Michael’s relationship with Winslet’s Hanna isn’t as interesting as when Michael was a sexually eager David Kross slowly realizing the extent of why their relationship can never work.

Director Stephen Daldry spreads the story out in a way that feels so overlong that it softens the impact. Due to the sprawl of the story, which keeps on lingering on the two lovers year after year, what striking comment the film had on the nature of post-WWII Germany got lost in the corny second half (where Winslet’s make-up enhanced performance also starts to appear too labored and silly). The Reader feels very much like Daldry’s previous film, The Hours, where an arresting premise with equally arresting scenes come together as one tedious film. The sentimental Shawshank-esque second half never connects with the erotic coming-of-age story of the first half. One of the two should’ve been reduced to set-up or conclusion—depending on which one—rather than prolonging a story way past its peak.

The main dilemma of The Reader is the question of what to do when someone you love is revealed to have done something you must condemn. This song reaches its crescendo when Michael Berg has to watch Hannah Schmitz on trial, but it goes on for another hour like a lingering dial tone, leaving the impression of a dud. And after such a promising start, too.

"The Reader" opens December 12, 2008 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare (screenplay), Bernhard Schlink (book). Starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross.

Dec
14
2008
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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