Best of the Year
The Reader, a film about love and overcoming past guilts, is like a wily cat; it creeps around nonchalantly until it jumps in your lap and engulfs you with its presence. Set in 1958 and starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, the story starts with a quiet intrigue that rumbles with an understated weight so profound the movie became my favorite of the year.
Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), a hard-working trolley conductor, lives alone in a German upstairs flat. When she returns home one day, she finds young lad Michael Berg (David Kross) upchucking near her stairway. She brings him a bucket of water, cleans off his face and tells him to go home to bed.
After he recovers from scarlet fever, Michael returns to thank Hanna for her kindness. She ends up seducing the teenager, but neither discovers the other’s name until long after they’re intimate. The two begin a steamy sexual affair that lasts through the summer. Hanna confesses over and over about being in love with Michael. She especially loves that he reads to her – books, poetry, love sonnets and never tells him why she won’t read them herself. Michael’s raging hormones distract him from any normalcy, and he runs for Hanna’s apartment every chance he gets. One day when he arrives he finds the apartment empty and Hanna gone with not so much as a goodbye note.
The film then transitions to 1995 when Michael (now played by Fiennes), a divorced father with a grown daughter, tries to put the sad pieces of his adult life together. This includes a flashback to 1966 when Michael is a law student and his professor takes the class to witness a real trial in progress. On trial are female guards who chose the next victims to be ushered into Hitler’s gas chambers during the Holocaust.
What transpires next offers a haunting look at two lives once so intertwined the future was never a second thought, yet how utterly extreme their lives apart became. The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink’s novel, is adapted for the screen by David Hare who proved with his Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for The Hours that he can shuffle complex subplots into thought-provoking films.
Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) faced huge challenges with a script spanning nearly 40 years, but he delivers a seamless production without a single hiccup. This is also partly due to his superb cast.
Winslet’s performance is stunning, and the San Diego Film Critic’s Society voted her Best Actress for her role rather then the studio touted Best Supporting Actress. Believing a young, pretty woman would not only be without a man but actually fall in love with someone nearly half her age is hard to accept. With a mere look, the way her chin nestles into his and genuine satisfying sighs of pure joy when he reads to her brings Schmitz alive without a trace of Winslet. to be seen. And years later, when all hope of love has been replaced by shame, Winslet appears polished in every heart-breaking scene.
Fiennes’ dramatic skills are so refined he disappears in many of his characters, as he does during half the film when he’s on screen here. And 18-year-old Kross is a real surprise. He’s incredible in this movie. Although he’s made only a handful of German films, he handles his nude scenes with an accomplished actress like a seasoned professional. Winslet found the newbie actor perfect for the role of the young boy who becomes a perceptive man before her eyes. “David is remarkably similar to Michael Berg—he’s a very serious person, incredibly professional and sensitive,” she said. “He’s willing to try things and wants to learn and grow.”
While lightly touching on some significant historical elements, The Reader is not a typical Holocaust movie, and Hare is right in calling his film an odd piece that belies expectations. Moviegoers become enthusiastic voyeurs not only of an engaging love affair but also of how truth and reconciliation can finally exist in the same place.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com