Movie Review: The Reader
The Charlotte Observer
No critic could be unmoved by a story that shows how the ability to read and write can unlock a treasure chest of knowledge and ideas. So my reaction to “The Reader,” a movie easier to admire than to love, may be stronger than yours. It's a talky film – how could a picture about the power of words be otherwise? – but not a draggy one.
In one way or another, words save or condemn the two significant characters. Young Michael Berg (David Kross), caught up by literature and philosophy, matures into a man who makes his living arguing the law (Ralph Fiennes). Illiterate streetcar conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) hides her disability out of shame, even to the point where her life will be gravely affected; then words offer a kind of solace.
The film slightly softens Bernhard Schlink's novel, making the older Michael a bit less remote and more sympathetic. But director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare, who also collaborated on “The Hours,” wrestle with the same questions as their source: How should we respond when caught up (directly or distantly) in a guilty action, and what obligation do we have to intervene in the life of someone who's in danger but has refused our help?
I can't say more for fear of giving away a big twist. I can describe only the first half of the picture: The 15-year-old Michael falls in lust with the 35-year-old conductor, who initiates him into sexual mysteries after hearing him read chapters of his favorite texts. (We figure out long before he does that she can't read or write.) Then fate separates them, and they reunite after Michael enters law school.
This coming-of-age portion is the less interesting half, though it has the more interesting Michael. We have seen Fiennes play an emotionally detached introvert so often that he brings nothing new to the role, apt though he is. Yet it's his section that brings out the picture's philosophic elements. (Bizarrely, the authentic accent of the German-born Kross gives way to a Britified German accent from Fiennes. Of course, all the characters speak English.)
Oscar talk perennially surrounds Winslet, who's earned five nominations in a dozen years. She gives a fierce and honest performance, starting with the brusque severity most Americans would read as “Germanic” and allowing us only glimpses of Hanna's deeper emotions. That, too, may be a very German trait for the generation that came of age in World War II: Excess of emotion led to one of the great catastrophes of history.