For all the talk of Kate Winslet being the perennial Oscar bridesmaid prior to this most recent ceremony, there is a good chance that come February 2011 we’ll be having the exact same conversation about director Stephen Daldry. With his debut Billy Elliot, the 2002 ensemble The Hours, and now The Reader, Daldry has managed the not inconsiderable feat of 3 films, and three Best director Oscar nods. This adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s award-winning, Operah-approved novel is everything you can expect from a Daldry picture; involving, penetrating, and despite being a somber tale of loss guilt, and shame in the wake of the holocaust, is at times quite ridiculously sexy.
Impressive up-and-comer David Kross co-stars as Michael, a teenage boy in 1958 West Germany who takes ill in the street and is aided by tram conductor Hannah Schmitz (Winslet). Returning later to thank her the two begin a passionate affair, with Michael approaching their energetic tumbling as only a fifteen-year-old can, and Hannah desperately in need of, well, we’re not really sure yet. Several intense scenes of unfettered passion close out as Michael roles over as to casually enquire, “What is your name?”
Much of the first act comprises the kind of matter-of-fact undress that’s gone the way of the Dodo in Hollywood, but suits the tone of the piece perfectly. It’s a committed display of extended full frontal nudity from both players that even by Winslet’s much-touted standards is well above and beyond the call of duty. As the camera traces Hannah’s full and voluptuous curves Michael augments their post coitus bliss reading aloud to her the material from his classic’s studies as she stares upwards with wonderment. From Homer’s Odyssey to Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin Michael’s enthusiastic renditions make this simple woman weep with joy.
But while this story is about two people, this film encompasses something much larger and the nods to larger conservative society are calculated and exacting. Schmitz might be spending her free time deflowering a fifteen-year-old boy, but she struggles to listen to some of the riper passages from Lady Chatterly’s Lover; “it’s disgusting,” she tells Michael, “you should be ashamed of yourself.” An afternoon’s cycling might provide a sunny escape, but Michael has to let the waitress at the tavern think they’re mother and son, but the delight in his eyes when he sees he’s made her smile is sheer cinematic joy. But it can’t last, and surely enough one day Hannah is simply gone with no word or warning, and Nico Muhly’s gentle score tinged with longing and melancholy ably transitions you to something much darker before you even realize what’s happening.
Flashing forward to Heidelberg in 1966 we find Michael, now at law school, discussing the difference between the legal and the immoral with his seminar class chaired by dispassionate Professor Rohl (the always impressive Bruno Ganz). A much-publicized trial of former Auschwitz guards has Michael in ruin, as one of the defendants is painfully familiar to him. It’s here that The Reader transitions itself from a titillating coming-of-age drama into a full blown love story set across the German generation gap which divides the culpable from those whose job it is to force atonement in front of the world. This isn’t a trial so much as a show. One defendant casually knits her way through statements, and Hannah is clearly more confused than repentant. “Why did you sign up?” she’s asked, “It was a job,” she shrugs. “What would you have done?” she enquires back without a hint of sarcasm.
That’s the central question at the heart of The Reader. After such a unique and unprecedented sequence of events what do you do? Do you kill yourself? Do you move on? Or do you perhaps take a job as a tram conductor and find comfort in the arms of a boy who simply makes you happy? Book-ending this saga we find Michael in 1995, now grown (played by Ralph Fiennes), now a lawyer, who seemingly still searching for a connection like the one he had idly shuffles a woman out of his apartment before sitting down to breakfast alone.
As you might have guessed already there is no simple solution here. No happy ending or easy reconciliation. Only the faint unwillingness to let things end on a catastrophic downer cause Daldry to unbalance the story in the final closing minutes with a clumsy and misguided attempt at catharsis that is not anything approaching as subtle or intelligent as what has gone before. But this film is 124 minutes and for the first 115 it is a very stern individual who will not find him or herself profoundly moved by events preceding.
Starring: Kate Winslet, David Kross, Ralph Fiennes, Bruno Ganz, Alexandrea Maria Lara, Lena Olin
Director” Stephen Daldry
Runtime: 124 Minutes