The Reader | Film Review | Indy Week
Pin It

The Reader 

click to enlarge Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader. - PHOTO BY MELINDA SUE GORDON/ THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
  • Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/ The Weinstein Company
  • Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader.

The Reader opens locally Jan. 2

For those of us with limited patience for the kinds of exquisitely tasteful literary adaptations that tend to litter theaters in December, The Reader requires, well, patience. Adapted by playwright David Hare (a principal offender in the world of tasteful screenplay adaptations) from a bestselling novel by German author Bernhard Schlink, the film is directed by Stephen Daldry, who last collaborated with Hare on another lace-handkerchief weepie, The Hours.

Indeed, the film's long first act, set in Berlin in 1955, is an unending prologue of tinkling music, muted colors, longing glances, lovingly caressed flesh and worshipful treatment of literature. This is the youth of Michael Berg (played in these years by David Kross and in maturity by Ralph Fiennes), a bookish, vaguely rebellious middle-class teen who chances into an affair with Hanna, a sad-eyed, single, working-class woman in her 30s (Kate Winslet, who reveals an appealing, if improbably toned, body). The lad gets his sexual education in the summer-long affair; Hanna, for her part, insists that Michael read aloud to her before sex—from Chekhov, from Lessing, from Goethe. There's far too much of this doomed summer romance, but when it finally ends, the film's action advances a few years, to when Michael is in law school.

Then the narrative cards land on the table: While taking a war crimes seminar, Michael is shocked to discover a grayer, more haggard Hanna among a group of defendants charged with crimes committed against Jewish prisoners while working for the SS during the war. Michael keeps his distance from Hanna during the trial; instead, the film begins to show its true interest (and no doubt that of novelist Schlink, who is a law professor) in the limits of legal and moral responsibility and in the individual and collective guilt of the German people.

Although they don't meet in this second act, both Hanna and Michael make important moral choices that center on a revelation I won't share. This secret is an effective enough dramatic device on an emotional level, but it doesn't appreciably complicate the moral and legal stakes in the story. (And, frankly, this plot point, hidden in plain sight, won't surprise anyone who's seen a few movies and has been paying attention to this one.)

With the aid of this unsurprising revelation, the film then forces us, in its final act set three decades later, into emotional and psychological complicity with Winslet's Nazi guard. This sets up a brutal face-off between present-day Michael and a Holocaust survivor (Lena Olin) who was Hanna's chief accuser. The story complicates matters by presenting the survivor as a supercilious, hyper-cultivated and extremely wealthy Upper East Side New Yorker. The ensuing confrontation, in which Michael attempts to communicate Hanna's remorse, is utterly riveting—and deeply discomfiting—as the characters work through issues of guilt, penance and forgiveness.

What's best about the scene is its emotional ambiguity—we (and Michael, as our surrogate) enter into it with expectations that cannot, and will not, be fulfilled. This scene, along with the legal and moral issues raised in Hanna's trial, more than redeems the tasteful banality found elsewhere in the film.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Film Review

Twitter Activity

Most Recent Comments

The lobster is arbitrarily asinine, disjointed, and gratuitously violent towards both humans and former humans that "didn't make it." If …

by Marco_Polo on The Lobster Surreally Skewers Society’s Fear of Single People (Film Review)

The only peeople who murdered those boys were let off by an inexperienced prosecutor and hoodwinked judge. The facts are …

by Greg 1 on The West Memphis Three are free ... what about the real killer? (Film Review)

"Miles Ahead"... "opening Friday".... where? I'm having a tough time finding film times/locations on now. The …

by Tbone on Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis Film, Miles Ahead, Isn’t a Real Biopic—It’s Something Better (Film Review)

Actually, many evangelicals and other Christians would not agree with the notion that "if you are a true believer you …

by bsquizzato on Film Review: Christian Movie Miracles From Heaven Goes Where Secular Hollywood Won't (Film Review)


The lobster is arbitrarily asinine, disjointed, and gratuitously violent towards both humans and former humans that "didn't make it." If …

by Marco_Polo on The Lobster Surreally Skewers Society’s Fear of Single People (Film Review)

Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

© 2016 Indy Week • 201 W. Main St., Suite 101, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation