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 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
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.