The Reader ***
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink
Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz
Ralph Fiennes as Michael Berg
David Kross as Young Michael Berg
Bruno Ganz as Professor Rohl
Lena Olin as Rose Mather
Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.
Considering the trouble had behind the set of "The Reader," as well as the sad deaths of two of its producer's Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, it seemed like a tall order to get the film out before the award season, but after losing "The Road" to the bowels of 2009 it was all the Weinsteins had to try and gain some prestige before year's end. But they pulled it off, and the rush job given to the post-production does not show at all. Stephen Daldry has crafted an effective romance story, with yet another excellent performance by Kate Winslet, who does some subtle things with her face here that enchance her character to the point where it is not Kate Winslet making facial ticks, but Hanna Schmitz doing them.
"The Reader" revolves around a secretive affair that occurs between the fifteen year old Michael Berg and the much older Hanna Schmitz. On the way home from school one day, until he is struck ill on the train, Michael is helped by Hanna after he releases his insides outside of her building. The next day he returns to thank her, and she surprises him that stripping off all of her clothes and making him quite grateful. From that point, and for one summer, Michael returns to her apartment nearly every day, neglecting his friends and other girls that are interested in him, who become suspicious of his actions. Alternating their sex acts has Hanna making Michael read to her, and he spans from Homer to Lawrence. That is until Hanna disappears, and the affair comes to a sudden halt. Year's later, while studying law, Michael sees Hanna on trial for Nazi war crimes, and even further into the future is a much older Michael being reminded of this affair almost constantly, and then is forced to relive it when Hanna comes back into his life.
I mentioned Kate Winslet's terrific performance, and she is possibly better here than she is in "Revolutionary Road,' and that is quite a tall order. Without any dialogue at times, Winslet is able to express so much, and its a fleeting glance from her as she has a menu in front of her that makes it very obvious that she cannot read. Her illiteracy is not even spoken about until near the very end, but its easy to know. Her small smiles at the idea of Michael loving her or finding her beautiful add to her character, who seems so hardened at the idea of compliments that she consistantly refers to Michael as "kid." There is also good work by newcomer David Kross, as the young Michael, who does have a hard time matching Winslet in their scenes together, but provides an excellent and much needed awkwardness in the early stages of their affair as he adjusts to her.
That being said, there is an distinctive three parts to this film, some of which work better than others. The first portion concerns the initial love story between Hanna and Michael, which is handled perfectly well because of the performances. It was engrossing and absorbing, but once again pretty standard. The second portion turns the film into a courtroom drama, once again quite standard, but less absorbing and engaging. The emotional high point here, which is the eventual sentence of Hanna, does not exactly pack the punch that it should. But the last portion of the film turns this into something more than a standard love story. It becomes something life changing for the characters, and Hanna is not only the sexual beginnings for Michael, but what he bases his entire definition of love around.
The ending is achingly beautiful and sad in the same way, and this is also where Ralph Fiennes is able to stretch his acting chops and give life to the older Michael. Him and Kross work well together, and instead of Kross being a younger version of Fiennes and trying to copy his mannerisms and attitude, it is the other way around, where Fiennes is working with what Kross does and basing his performance around that. Fiennes' eyes has the sadness that Kross experienced, and it is easy to understand that it is the same character. "The Reader" is a well acted drama that saves it best moments for the end, saving it from a somewhat muddled middle. Not just a romance, but a film about reflecting on choices made in the past to try and make a better future.