by GEOFF GEIB
The Reader is surprisingly moving considering the majority of its running time is spent as a stilted, excessively somber treatise on German complicity with the Nazi atrocities of the second world war. I’m all for an examination of cultural worth in the wake of the Holocaust, but I’m not sure it makes for the most engaging of Cineplex films, and The Reader consequently drags for a good portion of its talky running time.
The Reader traces the path of Michael Berg, who as a teenage boy (played in appropriately awkward fashion by David Kross) in Germany stumbles into an apartment foyer, terribly ill. He is helped by an older, no-nonsense woman (Winslet), whom he then engages in a summer-long affair. Sadly for both of them, she has unfortunate secrets which ultimately doom her and forever scar him.
None of the problems with the film have anything to do with Kate Winslet, who drives the film with yet another impressive performance as Hanna Schmitz, a tough, dowdy German woman with a shameful past. Most of the film’s flaws are concealed by her presence, which is not at all surprising considering the fine body of work she has amassed in the last few years.
Little Children, one of my favorite films from 2006, allowed Winslet to flex her reserve of barely concealed repression, a talent which will likely help her in the upcoming Revolutionary Road. Her turn as Jim Carrey’s lost alterna-hottie icon/savior in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was just as mesmerizing as the film’s script and while her fatalistic approach to Finding Neverland was hardly innovative, it was more than functional in a film that hardly required such precision.
More than anything, it is Winslet’s sense of daring that makes her presence on the screen such a pleasure to watch, and while the level of nudity she displays in The Reader certainly contributes to this sensibility, it is her choice to play Hanna in an understated yet uncompromising fashion that is truly risky. After all, this is a character who is naked for a good portion of the film, who was a prison guard for a Nazi concentration camp and has yet another secret that is even more shameful and embarrassing, but Winslet never yields to the temptation to portray Hanna as anything more than what she is – a woman who matter-of-factly gets through each day, who hesitantly takes pleasure where it can be found and recognizes that honesty and culpability are two heads of an imperfect monster.
The film moves around Michael’s life and perspective, first as a boy, then as a law student and later as an adult, the older version of Michael played by Ralph Fiennes, who does tortured solemnity better than most. In many ways, we come to see Michael’s entire life is about Hanna – the days he spent in her apartment, her very public trial for war crimes and his inability to forgive or forget.
This then, beyond Winslet’s performance, is what is ultimately so moving about The Reader. It is not the moral struggle Michael undergoes, but the realization that his infatuation with Hanna goes far beyond a sexual fascination, or a romantic entanglement, or even a sense of guilt, but centers around a rainy day in his childhood, when stumbling along, miserable and sick, a woman was kind to him.