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The Reader ***
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

Winslet, Kross grow increasingly fond of bedtime stories in Stephen Daldry's The Reader.

(Courtesy of SFStation.com)

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jeanette Hain, David Kross, Kate Winslet, Susanne Lothar. Rated R.

The Reader has been criticized as being an excessively cool-blooded (or British, if you prefer) drama about a man and a woman whose emotional ties to one another are irrevocably frayed, but never entirely severed, by the Holocaust and the judgments made in its aftermath. While I understand these criticisms – this is a movie about two preternaturally remote, oddly inaccessible people whose passions are evident only during the time they spend together – there is nothing tepid about the conflict raging in the soul of Michael Berg.

Michael has a secret. As a quiet, cautiously precocious 15-year-old (David Kross) growing up in postwar Germany, he falls into a torrid summer fling with Hanna (Kate Winslet), a working-class beauty who seems impossibly distant until the moment she hungrily seduces him. (Even after that she remains guarded, though chinks in her emotional armor begin to appear.) Theirs seems an uncomplicated affair, involving a straightforward exchange of talents. Michael reads to Hanna, and she teaches him to make love, though not necessarily in that order. Before long, they fall in love.

But Hanna leaves Michael abruptly at the end of the summer, without so much as a word of warning, and he reluctantly – albeit with a newfound self-confidence – returns to the awkward business of being a teenager.

Years later, they meet again under drastically different circumstances. Michael is a law student attending the trials of Nazi war criminals. Hanna, to his horror, is sitting at the defendant’s table, accused of locking hundreds of concentration-camp prisoners in a burning barn. Even there, she seems defiantly aloof, perhaps unwilling to admit her guilt or unable to understand the magnitude of her act. The prisoners were entrusted to her, she reasons. There was a job to do.

Inspired by the well-received but controversial novel by German author Bernhard Schlink, director Stephen Daldry’s unhurried and literate take on The Reader may be set against the polarizing backdrop of the Holocaust, but that’s not the focus of his film. This is a movie about coming to terms with the past and learning to forgive, even when faced with an unspeakably ugly reality.

Haunted by his lingering, lifelong passion for Hanna, yet unable to pardon her monstrous crimes, the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, his face contorted by grief) is as much a portrait of thinly masked torment as his onetime lover, whose icy exterior seems more and more like a desperate last line of defense. They discover a way to heal together that is genuinely moving, but one senses there are some wounds that leave lasting scars, some betrayals that can never be remedied.

The Reader asks tough questions: How could such a seemingly civilized, rather ordinary person have in her heart the capacity for such evil? How can you forgive the unforgivable? Should you even try? The film offers no facile answers, only quietly forceful performances (particularly by Winslet, whose tense body language speaks volumes) that make these characters and the tragedy that colors their lives seem achingly, crushingly real.

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