Review: The Reader

Set in Germany and beginning in the 1950s with David Kross as a teenager who has a brief affair with a lonely, middle-aged woman (Kate Winslet), whom he reads to. Years later he encounters her again on a field trip to a courtroom, where she is on trial for a most unspeakable crime, and he might have crucial evidence to help her. Ralph Fiennes plays the adult Kross in modern day scenes where his past has poorly affected his relationship with his daughter. Lena Olin plays dual roles as a mother and daughter affected by the Holocaust, and Bruno Ganz plays Kross’ law professor.

Warning: This is a pretty in-depth analysis of the film, and its nature is such, that important details must be divulged in order to adequately assess the film’s strengths and weaknesses (of which there are more of the latter than former). If you have yet to see the film, you know the drill. All others, read on.

Aside from a miscast Kross as a supposedly desirable teen, there’s nothing especially wrong with this generally well-made 2008 Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) drama...except that it’s entirely on the nose, and frankly just barmy. It tackles big issues like the Nazi regime and practices, and the guilt and responsibility debated in its aftermath. All very fine, interesting and important things to discuss, albeit already much discussed  as it is. But at no point, at least not in significant detail, is the film’s central paedophilic relationship properly treated. No outrage, no disgust, seemingly no judgement at all. And just what in the holy hell is this relationship doing in a film about Nazi Germany and war crimes? The whole thing came off as weird, unsavoury, and most importantly, utterly pointless to me. Perhaps the Bernhard Schlink novel (apparently partly autobiographical, but I call ‘bullshit!’ on that) sells these two kinds of crimes more effectively and reveals an overall point to it, but this film is just plain nuts and never alerted me to a point, at least not a good one. Apparently we’re meant to ask what we would do if someone we loved turned out to be a Nazi and the question of whether someone can be evil simply because of one instance of evil in their lives, but that argument doesn’t even wash here. Winslet’s already a disgusting paedophile long before we get the revelations of her past misdeeds in the name of the Fatherland. And don’t even get me started on this story’s attempt at an excuse for her actions. Oh, the poor little Nazi Fraulein can’t frigging read. It wasn’t her fault…yeah, that’s got nothing to do with anything. That part of the story is almost as disgusting as the paedophilic aspect of the film. I could almost tolerate it if she was part of the Hitler Youth or something, but this? Uh-uh.

Winslet, though a bit young for the part, is pretty good in a role unlike any other she’s played, and if there’s any sympathy for her character, then it’s entirely to her credit as an actress. Indeed everyone in the cast aside from the sappy-looking Kross, is quite solid. Kross reminded me of that wet-mouthed little creep who failed to convince as an object of student-teacher lust in the similarly overrated “Notes on a Scandal”.

There’s nothing much wrong with it, like I said, except the story. If you’re a fan of the novel it might work considerably better for you than it did me, but I really have to wonder why Schlink had to add paedophilia to the mix, the story would’ve worked considerably better if Kross’ character had been a bit older. Surely the points being made (whatever they are) could’ve been made without this most distasteful element added. What exactly does paedophilia have to do with German guilt over the Holocaust? Perhaps it’s unfair to complain about a film due to the source material it is based on, but then I’m only basing it on the source material as presented here, I haven’t read the novel. And as such, I felt awfully queasy throughout. Scripted by playwright David Hare (who worked with Daldry on the slightly overrated “The Hours”), the film earned Winslet an Oscar for Best Actress, and for that we can all be happy. She deserves to be an Oscar winner, no matter the quality of the film she won it for.

Rating: C+


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