Thursday, February 19, 2009

Film review: The Reader

Director: Stephen Daltry
Cast: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes
Country: USA/Germany

The Reader has caused something of a stir in film circles recently and might be the most divisive movie in Oscar contention this year. On a superficial level The Reader contends themes orbiting the holocaust and German guilt, but scratch the surface and you will find a film searching for an understanding of humanity and its relationship to behaviour on a far greater personal level...

“Does anyone stay long enough to get inside your head,” asks an anonymous woman of Michael (Ralph Fiennes) the morning after their one night encounter. It is 1995 and this distant but polite lawyer is a man carrying some considerable and repressed pain. On the surface he is cold and expressionless like his apartment, all marble counters, wood floors and constipated cleanliness.

Transplanted back to 1958 we meet Michael again, this time played by young German actor David Kross. Michael is 15 and about to embark on an affair with thirtysomething Hanna (Kate Winslet), one that is less of passion than it is of intimacy. Over the course of the summer Michael falls in love as Hanna teaches the mechanics of making love. Before sex she has him read to her the books he is learning at school. Their affair can’t last forever and when a positively mortified Hanna is offered a promotion at work she leaves without saying goodbye to a heartbroken Michael, all too young and na├»ve for the pain this inflicts.

Eight years later, Michael is in law school and his troubles connecting with people already apparent. It is now that Michael sees Hanna again, on trial for horrendous crimes as an SS guard during the war and must contend not only with the seeming complicity of his first love in murder of Jews, but also that he might be the only one that can step to her defense and reveal information that might offer an understanding of how she became a guard in the first place. In revealing this secret Hanna is too deeply ashamed to reveal herself, Michael would not only be revealing his own, but forgiving her betrayals.

Kross proves an impressive discovery by director Stephen Daltry, but it is Winslet who shines as she inhabits every pour of Hanna’s dour angst, endowing empathy on a character that maybe deserves none. Through Winslet’s acting, Daltry’s gentle direction and David Hare’s reflective script, Hanna and Michael become windows unto our own souls. We all have our secrets and under any given set of circumstances it is impossible to say what we might do to keep our shame hidden. This human characteristic magnified in Nazi Germany where so many otherwise good people turned a blind eye becomes a fascinating question of how scared we all are of a world that can be so very cruel.

Some have described The Reader as a cold film, too simplistic in its commentary of post-holocaust Germany. Scratch the surface and you will find a film whose themes are far more intimate, troubling and worthy of your consideration.

The Reader is on Australia wide release February 19.

This review has also appeared in 3D World #947