The Reader” *** (123 minutes)
Posted By Jay Berg to Jay Berg’s Cinema Diary
On the Oscar trail again and next up is the thought provoking film written by David Hare, based on Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 best seller (the first German best seller to make the N.Y. Times’ Best Seller list). Director Stephen Daldry’s third film follows his two previous impressive efforts, 2000’s “Billy Elliot” & 2004’s multi-Oscar nominated and winner “The Hours”, and deals with two seemingly unrelated topics: coming-of-age and The Holocaust.
The non-linear tale opens in 1995 with middle age Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) looking and acting forlorn-especially to the lady he has just slept with and who is about to leave his apartment. It will take the film nearly two hours to explain his demeanor. He tells her he is about to meet his daughter whom he hasn’t seen in some time.
A passing train catches his eye and the story flashes back to 1958 when Michael is 15 years old (ably played by newcomer David Kross). We see young Michael on a train and then on the street where he is stricken by scarlet fever. Happening upon him is 38 year old Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet) who befriends him. After he recovers, he returns to her apartment to thank her. Constantly referring to him as “kid”, Hanna seduces the virgin and they begin having a summer affair. However, it ends abruptly when one day he finds her gone.
We learn the first of her two secrets during the weaker 2nd hour, when, eight years later, as a law student, he attends a trial of a group of women accused of allowing 300 Jews to perish in a church fire. Hannah is one of the defendants. However, her other secret may possible save her from extended jail time. He realizes this while watching the proceedings in the gallery-but will he intervene to help her?
On the surface, this is a morality tale we’ve seen over and over again in the cinema. However, there is much more going on here. Moral questions abound dealing with guilt and responsibility on both personal and collective levels. The decisions made by the principals are woven into the structure of the story-but the meaning and focus as to why these decisions may have been made are at the core of the script. There is way more here than a Nazi perpetrator getting her just reward. It’s more about why people “go along” and take no action when the situation screams otherwise. As Hanna says during her trial, “What would you have done?” The answer is not as straight forward as you might think.
The first “coming of age” hour is the better half of the film and you will clearly understand why Ms. Winslet received her nomination for Best Actress. The depth and emotions she conveys to Hannah are subtle and profound.
Some have compared the film to last year’s great “Atonement”. Although not nearly as good as that one, its structure reminded me more of the outstanding “The English Patient”. It is not surprising that the late Anthony Minghella (who won the Best Director award for it in 1996) was touted initially as the director. He is listed, along with the late Sydney Pollack, as two of the four producers-who both died during production. The film is understandably dedicated to both of these cinema icons. In fact, The Academy has relaxed its rules this year (the first time in nearly a decade) to allow more than three producers being credited for a Best Picture nominee.