(2008 ) Director: Stephen Daldry | Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress, Cinematography, Directing, Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
It takes a 15-year-old naïf mere minutes to fall in love with Kate Winslet’s terse, older tram attendant in the first act of The Reader, but it takes an aging man 30-some years to understand her effect on him, indicating less of a generation gap than an emotional chasm between those who lived through Germany’s part in World War II and their successors. The film’s story (adapted faithfully from the award-winning novel by Bernhard Schlink), told over four periods in a lifetime, follows Michael Berg (David Kross as the youth, Ralph Fiennes as the introverted adult ) as his path connects with that of Hanna Schmitz—first during a fast-moving love affair which finds Michael reading aloud to Hanna from a variety of literature before their physical sessions, then eight years later as he accidentally discovers her shocking involvement in past heinous crimes against humanity. It takes a while to see where the trails collide, but their intersection is as morally gripping as it is quietly devastating for everyone involved, whether they know it or not.
In as slow-moving a film as this, it takes a talent as wonderful as Winslet to keep viewer focus on the character and not just the actor performing the role; and truly, Winslet disappears into Hanna, stripped completely of makeup or other beauty accoutrements, becoming a person who has built a wall around herself to hide her past and present shame from herself and others. Even more impressive is Kross, a newcomer with outstanding range and an impeccable feel for subtlety. His young Michael wears his emotional age on his face as The Reader progresses, showing the growing toll of his relationship with Hanna far better than any clunky exposition could. Fiennes cleans up the story with his usual sad solemnity, but his soft-spoken Michael is almost anti-climactic compared to Kross’ conflicted, passionate boy.
Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) has a knack for letting a story tell itself, and the result in The Reader is little to wow the senses from a cinematic standpoint, leaving the film’s wealth of moral traps and quandaries to jolt the viewer out of occasional lapses in pace and further cloud his or her perception of the characters. Are one’s ancient offenses any more forgivable if one’s motivations were benign? Just as fascinating, however, is the film’s examination of German guilt, and who has the right to bear such a burden. Certainly Michael does, though uniquely qualified, and his journey from innocence to culpability (by relation or otherwise) is the relatable backbone to a beautifully-acted tale both troubling and uplifting.
Rating Three and a Half of Five Stars
Content Warning: Copious amounts of disturbing nudity