Admirable if imperfect lessons of
Stephen Daldry directed one of the finest films of the past decade 2000’s “Billy Elliot,” and one of its worst, 2002’s “The Hours.” (The wrong film was Oscar nominated.) His latest, “The Reader,” displays both his ability to sensitively handle complex emotional material and his penchant for heavy-handed pretension.
Adapted from Bernhard Schlink’s novel, “The Reader” covers two main thrusts: the sexual awakening of an impressionable 15-year-old German boy, and the shocking past of the older woman with whom he has an affair. By spending far too much time developing Michael’s (an effective David Kross) affair with the stern Hanna (Kate Winslet), including plenty of “tasteful” but gratuitous nudity, the film truncates the much more complex and interesting second half of the film, where revelations of Hanna’s involvement in the Holocaust surface.
The story isn’t helped by its bouncing back and forth among four decades, where we see the effect Michael and Hanna’s relationship has had on the adult Michael, played with predictably distant effectiveness by Ralph Fiennes.
“The Reader” presents a variety of ethical questions about the emotional fragility of youth, sexual exploitation, and the effect of the Holocaust on the German psyche.
Some audiences may connect more with the patience-testing first part of the film, which relies heavily on Michael’s bringing the classics alive for Hanna and his willing part in her reciprocating and occasionally brusque advances.
But that ground seems to have been covered many times before (“Summer of 42′” etc…), and the meatier material involving a refreshingly different take on those responsible for the death camps gets the short end of the stick. No doubt there is a fine line between a film that intends to be morally ambiguous and one that feels incomplete.
While not deserving of its Best Picture nomination, the film has some excellent performances, especially Winslet’s, who we can now safely say shows no weaknesses in her acting abilities.
In “The Reader” she must show a variety of emotions including vulnerability, sensuality, and strength, and then she has to convince us her character is almost incapable of understanding her hand in the most heinous of crimes. Winslet and her young co-star Kross make up for many of the imperfections in “The Reader.”
Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.