Photo from The Reader
Death has the power to mark a film, and even to forever overshadow the film itself. Two of The Reader’s producers, Anthony Minghella, and Sydney Pollack died before the film’s completion. Sydney Pollack won two Oscars for directing, and one producing Out of Africa, while Anthony Minghella won a directing Oscar for The English Patient.
Minghella and Pollack are stars in their own right. To be honest, I have never much of a fan of either of the two director’s movies, instead I preferred Pollack for his amazing performances in Michael Clayton and in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. He was a master at playing a particular type of character.
The Reader is the joint final chapter in two cinematic legacies. This is director Stephen Daldry’s first movie in six years. The film seems like a renewal of Daldry’s artistic sensibilities. It is unlike any of his previous pieces of work. To his credit, the film achieves a level of sexual tension that is sustained throughout the entire movie; a difficult accomplishment.
[ad name=”Google Adsense-bottom”]However, The Reader is not a perfect film. The first half of the movie is tedious and far too long. The affair between Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) and the much younger Young Michael Berg (David Kross) never really develops. Watching the relationship is like being with a driver who keeps his car in first gear. There is ample opportunity to take the affair further and reveal something about the characters, but instead we seem stuck watching scene after scene of reading. We get the point. The movie wants to be the cinematic equivalent of the literary master works read in the film, but it never reaches its goal.
Eventually the film does pick up. The trial of Hanna, and Michael’s reactions to it are the film’s emotional centerpiece. Bruno Ganz, as Professor Rohl, emerges as the film’s best performance. Every time he appears on screen he is able to answer the film’s ethical questions while posing his own moral dilemmas.
I have mixed feelings about the later half of the film. It’s hard to sum it up without giving away some of the plot elements. If the movie is about guilt, then its subject matter is almost glazed over entirely. Neither character ever wants to accept their role in what they have done. Kate Winslet’s performance as Hanna is one of the showiest in her career but in my opinion she was much better in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road. In The Reader she is never able to completely flesh out her character. Her motivation feels false.
It is not until both the characters are older, and Hanna reenters Michael’s life, that the films’ relationships begin to get interesting. The emotions of both characters remain unspoken. This silence is what both works and doesn’t work about the film. The Reader ends up being about the character, while the larger context of The Holocaust feels forced. The film succeeds at grabbing the audience’ attention; however, the focus of the attention is perhaps less successful than the director would have liked.
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