Friday, December 26, 2008

The Reader does well on the big screen

Poster art for "The Reader."

When he falls ill on his way home from school, 15 year-old Michael Berg (David Kross/Ralph Fiennes) is rescued by Hanna (Kate Winslet), a woman twice his age. The two begin an unexpected and passionate affair only for Hanna to suddenly and inexplicably disappear. Eight years later, Michael , now a young law student observing Nazi war trials, meets his former lover again, under very different circumstances. Hanna is on trial for a hideous crime, and as she refuses to defend herself, Michael gradually realizes his boyhood love may be guarding a secret she considers to be more shameful than murder.

Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz and David Kross as Michael in "The Reader."

Is there a point past forgiveness? Are some crimes so beyond comprehension that there are no mitigating circumstances? Those questions are at the heart of The Reader; their existence its biggest problem. The acting, particularly by an outstanding Kate Winslet, is at times inspired. But the relentlessly downbeat nature of the film, along with the prospect of feeling sorry for a woman who worked as a Nazi guard and was at least partly responsible for the deaths of hundreds, is a bit much to ask. Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a streetcar ticket-taker who happens upon a boy retching in an alley during a rainstorm. That boy is Michael Berg, whom we will come to know at various stages of his life. The young Berg is played by David Kross; Ralph Fiennes plays him as an adult. This chance meeting will lead to a passionate affair between Hanna and Michael, one that includes not just copious amounts of sex but intellectual stimulation. Hanna likes to be read to and requires it of Michael almost as a ticket of admission to her bed. They grow close, but Hanna is moody, flying into rages. Michael is being kept from friends his age, and when Hanna is offered a promotion, she suddenly disappears. We next see Michael in law school, where his professor (Bruno Ganz) takes his students to the trial of women charged with war crimes - Hanna is among them. She was a guard at Auschwitz and is being tried for murder in the deaths of hundreds of prisoners. Michael is, of course, flooded with memories and struggles with his emotions. Hanna has a secret, one that Michael realizes over the course of the trial. It doesn't absolve her of guilt but it would affect her punishment if she would reveal it. The adult Michael remains morally confused, distant, still grappling with his feelings about Hanna. Fiennes is, as always, quite good, but this part of the film is sterile, cold. Only a late scene, in which Michael meets with the daughter of a survivor (Lena Olin), feels truly alive and is all the more welcome because of it. Kross is good in a tricky role. Winslet is outstanding, particularly given that Hanna is such an unsympathetic character. We never quite feel sympathy toward her, and it's testament to Winslet's skill and confidence that she never really asks us to. For though The Reader costars the gifted Ralph Fiennes and gives a lot of screen time to a young actor named David Kross, it is Winslet's haunting performance that gives the film its success. It is hard to overstate the impact Winslet makes in the trial scenes, even though she says very little. Alternately despairing, distraught and defeated, she allows conflicted emotions to play across her face as she struggles with the life and death decision of which secrets to reveal and which to hide away. From here on in, The Reader is at its strongest, as the film's series of twists that play out over years add to the dramatic and philosophical content. It's also here that The Reader's concerns with the guilt-ridden interplay between generations, with whether it is even possible to come to terms with what people we love have done, gain a sharper focus. Though Fiennes' increased screen time helps the film, he never seems to have enough to do. He and young Kross are also hampered by their involvement with the film's most pat and conventional aspects, including the larger role given both to Berg's future wife and their aforementioned daughter. Fortunately, The Reader is able to recover its focus. Though this remains a reserved film in which the underlying material is stronger than what's been done with it, enough of it has been retained to keep the enterprise on point. Especially when Winslet is on the screen. A strong 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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