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Movie Review – The Reader

January 18, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s a bit surprising that despite having a script with bland dialogue, a subpar performance from one of its main actors and a patronising director, THE READER is a decent film. Sadly, it’s one of those films with a premise that could have resulted in a much better movie. But screenwriter David Hare wasn’t inspired, as evidenced by the very first dialogue exchange in the film:

“You didn’t wake me.”

“You were sleeping.”

… wow.

Germany, the fifties. Young Michael Berg (David Kross) feels sick in the middle of the street and is helped by an older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet), whom he finds extremely pretty. After he recovers, he goes back to visit her and an affair begins, and ends abruptly, as she leaves without any warning. Years later, Berg, now a law student, crosses paths with his loved one again — as she, a former member of the SS, defends herself in a war-crimes trial, to Berg’s utter surprise, since he didn’t know of her past. We also see middle-aged Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes) as he deals with the emotional scars of his involvement with a former nazi, and the guilt he suffers from certain actions he took.

Both David Hare and director Stephen Daldry seemed to believe the audience would need a bit of a mystery to keep us interested in the film, which is where the main flaw of THE READER resides. Hanna has a secret (one not revealed in the synopsis) which the film makes painfully obvious — and it’s preposterous that Berg only realizes this after a long time.  The scene where Berg and Hanna are ordering food clears any doubts, and this seemingly wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention, since when the secret is officially “revealed”, Daldry adds several flashbacks showing us the clues he gave us as if we were expected to let our jaws drop at this amazing twist that became obvious twenty minutes ago.

The affair between Berg and Hanna is, however, interesting to watch, and the credit goes to Kate Winslet for her hypnotizing performance, since actor David Kross and Hare’s dialogue are no help. Frigid and bossy, Winslet’s character tends to have sudden mood changes, and even the warmest smile can become a hateful scowl if the wrong thing is said. Utterly convincing, the actress is one of the main reasons THE READER isn’t an instantly forgettable drama.

But David Kross, as young Michael Berg, is very limited, offering a merely passable performance. Whenever he needs to express a strong emotion, he resorts to a blank stare (so the audience will project whatever emotion we think fit over the empty canvas that is his face) or overdone body gestures (the way he repeatedly bows down, lowering his head and leaning on his knees, as he listens to Hanna during the war-crimes trial). Inexpressive for most of the film, Kross is also entirely unconvincing as a younger Ralph Fiennes, which obviously isn’t the actors’ fault, but the director’s for casting two physically distinct people to play the same character.

Fiennes, always talented and way more experienced than the young Kross, does a good job as the middle-aged Berg — and while Kross’ constantly vacant stare seems more appropriate for a retarded person, the expression Fiennes wears as Berg is a more convincing portrayal of introspective, quiet behaviour. Fiennes also protagonizes one of the strongest scenes in THE READER, when someone reads a letter to him and, after hearing the last sentence, he bursts into tears.

Also worthy of note is Professor Rohl, because he’s played by the brilliant Bruno Ganz, whose magnificent portrayal of Adolf Hitler in “Downfall” I will never, ever forget (and even if I did, another “Downfall” spoof on YouTube would remind me).

With its bland dialogue (“I can’t live without you. The thought of leaving you kills me. Do you love me?”), THE READER is saved by its relatively fast pacing. Scenes go by quickly, with short exchanges, and the plot is always moving forward. The love affair between Berg and Hanna manages to be emotionally successful up to a point. Daldry made the right decision in showing both actors naked next to one another constantly, in a strong portrayal of intimacy.

The superb cinematography by Roger Deakins and Chris Menges tends to film Hanna in cold tones — her apartment, however, seems warm, a subtle way to show how Berg feels inside it — much more at home and alive than he would be in his actual home. The red, translucent bath curtains are a particularly great touch, since they cast an orange glow over the couple as they take baths together. There is a certain moment when Berg, as a law student, talks to a colleague before taking her to bed — a quick scene shot in warm lights. However, when they are actually having sex, the movie goes back to the cold tones, as Berg misses his former lover. And the scene in which he visits a concentration camp is beautifully photographed, despite being pointless.

Despite its technical qualities, some interesting moral questions raised by the plot and Winslet’s amazing performance, THE READER is reduced to a some times interesting, but ultimately average drama by its many other shortcomings.

And I think THE READER is a bit of a dull title. But I guess it was that or I FUCKED A NAZI.

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