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Monday, December 08, 2008


The Reader: The ModFab Review

The Weinstein Company (123 Minutes)
Starring Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes and Lena Olin
Written by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry

Murky ethical complexities -- of love, of war, and of death -- will be both the draw, and the drawback, for audiences considering The Reader, Stephen Daldry's arresting cinematic adaptation of the novel by Bernhard Schlink. One of the most eloquent documents of personal awakening ever to be committed to celluloid, The Reader never compromises or settles for easy answers. It rebelliously challenges the prevalent Hollywood theory that entertainment and escapism are synonymous, and embraces its intellect and intricacy with refreshing candor. Some audiences may not embrace the film's controversial themes, which may be difficult and even threatening...but avoiding The Reader is simply not an option. It demands your attention, and your attendance. Because it is unquestionably the smartest, most engaging, and most important film of the season.

As a teenager in post-WWII Germany, Michael Berg (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes, as a teenager by David Kross) had a brief but potent affair with an adult woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), an affair that had a profound affect upon both their lives. Not only due to the passion of their relationship, but in its aftermath -- after a brief period, the film jumps years later, when Berg, now a law student, discovers that Schimtz is on trial for her role as a guard in wartime death camps. The conflation of issues -- sexuality, literature, secrecy, love, and the horrors of the Holocaust -- are so fascinating that I won't reveal more of the plot here. But the story unfolds in surprising ways, and more importantly, in ways that challenge what we know of both the characters and our own ability for empathy and understanding.

The Reader has a crisp formalism in its composition, a choice that director Daldry (The Hours) seems to employ in all of his film and theatre work. Here, his slightly objective distance serves the story well, giving the camera a palpable neutrality in regard to the controversies mired inside the narrative. It's a choice that makes all the difference, and keeps the film from becoming maudlin like Life Is Beautiful or self-important like Schindler's List. The Reader asks us to make our own decisions about Michael and Hanna, and implies that any reaction we have is, at the very least, valid. The film has perspective, but not judgement; a serious tone, but not a guilty or innocent view of its subjects.

It also boasts some of the year's finest performances. Nicole Kidman was originally signed to play Hanna Schmitz, but dropped out of the film last January, when she became pregnant. What a stroke of luck, both for her and for us; Kidman would never have fit the part as well as Winslet, whose ability to transmutate sadness into art is unparalleled in modern cinema. She imbues Hanna with a fierce pain, born of secrets she's had to harbor for her entire life (which we learn late in the film). There's passion in Hanna, but it's impounded behind the bars of her history. Shame, power, and passion: it's the stuff that actresses dream of playing, and the stuff only truly great performers can manage effectively. Winslet not only achieves that goal, but in so doing turns The Reader into one of the finest films of 2008.

Equally magnificent, and even more surprising, is Kross, the young German actor making a breathtaking international debut. Only 18 himself, Kross navigates the complex emotions of 15-year-old Michael like a veteran of Shakespeare. Rather than smoothing out conflicting emotions, Kross bravely creates dramatic friction between them; he's got the stamina and the courage to allow Michael to be fragile, broken, confused, angry, and hopelessly devoted, sometimes all at once. It's no small feat that his interpretation of the character is superior to Fiennes' older version...although there is nothing wrong with Fiennes' work. Kross is simply masterful, iconic, and dazzling.

It's easy to suspect that a movie this substantial, this difficult, will find resistance at the box office; in a worsening global economy, The Reader won't lift its audiences' hearts or ease their troubles the way movies are sometimes expected to do. But think of the glass not as half-empty, but overflowing. There's so much to savor, to experience, and to ruminate about in The Reader, it's as satisfying any other half-dozen movies combined. That's a savings, and a boon, no matter how you see it.
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