The Reader is a complex film in many ways. Films of this genre often find it formidable to capture the essence of the story, characters and events in a manner that stay with you much after you’ve watched them. It is no surprise really that sensitive stories are hard to tell and sell. And it doesn’t help the case of The Reader, since the events it attempts to chronicle raise more controversies than sympathies.
There isn’t any need to provide the detailed plot of the film, for most of it can be found in this book review, but a succinct version may be apt. Unlike countless films set during or after the World War II era that focus on the Holocaust, its victims and its survivors, The Reader treads a different path. Based on the book by Bernard Schlink, the film revolves around an unusual and brief love affair between a 15 year old boy, and a much older woman, and ensuing events that change both their lives. It traces the life of a [now] old man Michael, who recounts his brief love affair with a mysterious and reclusive woman twice his age. A woman named Hanna, who liked to be read to, in bed.
Soon after they meet, Hanna disappears, leaving behind a shattered Michael who becomes emotionally unresponsive and distant as a result of this affair. Years later, Michael comes across Hanna again in a courtroom, where she is convicted of a crime of 300 Jewish women during the Holocaust, and is incarcerated for life. During the trial, Michael discovers her “shameful” secret, as any discerning viewer would have at this point.
Hanna is illiterate, and that’s her dirty little secret. It is not the remorse over murder of innocents that haunts her, but her incapacity. It is so shameful for her, that she hides it during the trial even when she knows that this information can have an impact on the case. She eventually lands up in jail, where with the help of Michael’s tapes, she learns how to read. Rest needn’t be said.
Let’s talk about the good parts first. If stunning cinematography and stellar performances are two decisive indicators of the quality of a film, then The Reader really shines through. Kate Winslet finally seduced the Golden man called Oscar, after flirting with it for years in futility (It's ironic that she was in fact, not the 1st or the 2nd, but the 4th choice for the role.) She really has evolved over the years, and it seems that she has decided on the kind of cinema she will pursue – the no-nonsense kinds. Revolutionary Road and Eternal Sunshine of a spotless mind reiterate that point.
Ralph Fiennes seems to have a liking for world-war-centric-themes. In Schindler’s List, the monster Amon Goth sent chills up our spines. On the other hand, in The Reader, Michael shows us what intensity really means, especially when it is understated. When the camera looks at Fiennes, the audience is in a trance. Only an actor of his caliber could have that authority without uttering one more word than necessary. Also, the young kid David Cross (who plays the young Michael) deserves a serious pat on the back. Daldry couldn’t have found a better Michael in anyone else.
Coming to the Achilles heels of the film, for one, it fails to connect with the audience. The reasons are two-fold. One, the premise of the film is pretty flimsy (and controversial). For a film that’s primarily a story of reconciliation, it treads dangerously close to controversial subject of holocaust. Many critics and viewers have labeled it as a “Holocaust denial film”, but that’s probably going a tad too far.
Hanna is ashamed of the fact that she’s illiterate. Understandably, that is something to be ashamed of. But is it less shameful than the act of killing hundreds? The story may be about the shame of illiteracy in the first place, with the subject of war crimes as the “peripheral” one, but somehow the film never is in control when it comes to conveying the anguish of both its central characters as emphatically as it should. Are we supposed to feel pity for a character who can’t read, but has no remorse over killing innocents? Do we feel sad when she’s moved by the stories, but not by her own guilt of committing a horrendous crime?
Perhaps that is not the fault of the film for it is adapted from a book. But either the script or the director himself never gave the story its soul that it desperately needed. I must also mention that there is a school of thought that disagrees about the fact that the film is actually about Holocaust at all.
The other problem with the film is that none of the characters is developed or utilized fully, as a result of which possibly multi-layered characters are deprived of depth. Hanna is tormented, and deeply ashamed of her inability to consume the beauty of words with assistance from another, but does that explain her apathetic attitude towards her crime? The fault does not lie with Kate’s acting, but may be attributed to the script that doesn’t truly convey the depth of her anguish, and that may earn either the viewer’s sympathy or contempt. Eventually, she may come across as an unscrupulous seductress who charms young boys like Michael for her fetish for Literature, and doesn’t really care about the effect it has on them. In an interview, Winslet stated that her relationship with a young boy “would, by modern standards, be considered paedophilia on some level.” I don't know whether it's paedophilia, but it's not some tragic love that one can glorify or exalt.
Even Michael seems more weak than broken. We want to sympathize with him and understand why he lands up as a distant, cold individual in the first place, but we never do. Even though Fiennes intense eyes try to do the justice to the character, the turmoil within Michael is never really brought out well. Perhaps the transition from a boy-in-love to a man-torn-apart could have been given more emphasis.
Daldry has tried to deliver a very complex film, which is admirable in its own way. However one can’t help but feel that he could have dealt with the subject better. As a result, we have a film that is only average, not outstanding. It might be more advisable to read The Reader than watch it.