Dir: Stephen Daldry
The Weinstein Company
Just as in his adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Stephen Daldry examines the connectedness of the past and present with The Reader. Based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, the film concerns the sexual initiation of a German boy by an older woman and the devastating truth he learns years later when his lover’s past actions come to light. But like most of the Academy Award season dross that bows in at this time of the year (and The Hours itself), The Reader is not nearly as profound or erudite as its creators hope you to believe. True, when sticking to emotional resonance, the film scores. But gussying up a weak script and stock characterizations as something of great import does both the film and its audience a serious disservice.
The first half of The Reader concerns the remembrances of Michael (Ralph Fiennes) who, at 15 years old in 1958 Germany, embarks on an affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a woman in her thirties who bathes him, fucks him and then asks him to read to her. While the sexual tension of the initial tryst is palpable, the film soon devolves into a maudlin orgy of the ever-naked Winslet and her young companion and their inability to communicate. Our understanding of Hanna and her murky motivations is just as limited as that of the naïve Michael. Why is she interested in screwing a teenager? Why must he read to her during these visits?
During this first section of the film, Daldry banks that lost, youthful love is something with which we all can identify. True, we have all loved someone fiercely in our youth only to spurn or be spurned by that person who at one time encompassed our thoughts and emotions. Though time dulls that pain, and subsequent lovers help us forget and move on, a tiny ember of that initial blaze still remains lodged within us. But, Michael is given the opportunity to see Hanna again and rather than heal his wounded heart, this chance encounter delivers the final blow as he realizes that rather than love him, Hanna used him just as she used many others in her dark past.
Eight years later, Michael is a repressed law student. He ignores the provocations of his female classmate and spends most of his time hunched over books, nursing his calcified heart. But when he sits in on a tribunal intent on prosecuting a cadre of female SS guards, he begins to realize the motivations of that affair from so many years ago.
The secret that Hanna carries (which really is no surprise) becomes her undoing when pride overcomes logic. Whether or not her decision is brave or pig-headed is never judged by Daldry. Where The Reader fails most is in its inability to get into the characters and push them to become more than depressive people with sagging hearts. The pain they feel is quite real, but one has to be human first to truly earn it.
by David Harris