Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Kate Winslett, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of five)
The Reader is an actors’ showcase, with Kate Winslet sublime in a low-key, emotionally distant performance, Ralph Fiennes a bundle of middle-aged constipation, and a young actor named David Kross giving a great performance as a younger Fiennes. It’s a cool, emotionally distant film that manages to inject a little ray of hope at the end, but it’s not an upbeat film. Be ready to tough that out.
Director Stephen Daldry’s film moves nicely, given its somber topics and performances. The film begins in 1958, with a teenage boy, Kross, having a summer affair with a quiet, fairly grim Winslett, about twice his age. Winslett ends up enjoying having her studious young lover read aloud to her at least as much as she enjoys their sexual liaisons, and the boy goes through Homer, Chekov and more before Winslett disappears. Subsequently, World War II and the Holocaust rear their heads, and we see the theme of the film emerging.
Secrets. Secrets so important that you’ll keep them even if it means destroying your life. Even if, to many outsiders, the secrets would not seem that great. Kate Winslett and the two men sharing the role of her lover let the things they can’t say destroy them. The film grapples with this in context of the issue of Germany coming to terms with World War II. In the early ’60s, a law student asks a middle aged professor how all that the Nazis did could be allowed to happen, how an entire generation could’ve failed to stand up for what’s right. And as a trial of alleged war criminals proceeds, in which the judges, prosecutors and jeering spectators are all of an age to have stood up and been counted during Hitler’s reign, the audience must wonder the same.
Now, the above paragraph is the most charitable take on the movie. The least charitable take is that it uses the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of an entire culture, to tell a story about two people that has the moral, arguably, of “Reading is Fundamental,” and “Dude, you should loosen up while there’s still time.” No one should be allowed to invoke the Holocaust, or Stalin’s purges, or Rwanda, any of that, unless their theme is larger than a troubled love story, or a family torn apart, or whatever. Live up to the context, man. This film, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink, manages to bring the requisite scope at the same time it delivers its focused individual story.
Daldry brought us The Hours (this time it’s an “aging” Winslett in the uglifying makeup, to better effect) and Billy Elliott, and he has another winner here. (He brings the Pulitzer-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay to theaters next year.) An audience willing to ponder these heavy issues and interested in seeing what a punch in the face such understated acting can be would be well advised to catch the film before all that other crap out there chases it from the multiplex.