Dir. Stephen Daldry
(R) ★ ★
Perhaps I am easily distracted; I spent an inordinate amount of The Reader wondering what time it was. An intertitle at the start of the film identifies that we are in Berlin, Germany, but it does not tell us when. Consequently, as the screenplay tosses us about the 20th Century, I attentively watch the wrinkles: wondering why Kate Winslet looks so old in one scene, and why Ralph Fiennes looks so young in others, and why young David Kross still looks sixteen even when he should have aged ten years or so from one point of the film to the next. Later on, Winslet’s character is in her mid-sixties, but the makeup artist went a little nuts with the prosthetics so instead she looks like the creature from The Mummy Returns.
Winslet plays Hanna Schmidt, who in 1950s Germany — yes, it is the 1950s, so I’ve learned — aids young Michael Berg (Kross) when he falls ill with scarlet fever. When he recovers, he returns to her to thank her, but the adolescent boy is transfixed by her, infatuated, and the two begin an affair that lasts throughout the summer, until without warning she leaves.
Michael does not see her again until he is a law student attending the trial of SS guards accused of murders at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. Hanna is one of the defendants. (Apparently, the trial ends in the mid-‘60s, but I could have sworn the trial started in the mid-‘50s — oh, never mind.)
The above storylines are intercut with later scenes involving an adult Michael, played by Fiennes at various points from the 1970s to the 1990s. He has a daughter whom he has been distant from, a wife he is divorced from, and he has never come to terms with his feelings for Hanna — the love he felt for her as an adolescent, and his hatred for her participation in the evil of the death camps.
So now we have the time line sorted out. The film is directed by Stephen Daldry, and the screenplay is written by David Hare, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. The last collaboration between Daldry and Hare was 2002’s The Hours, a film much more elegant in its balancing of multiple time periods.
The most interesting part of the story is the trial, which examines one small cog in the wheel of one of mankind’s greatest atrocities. Hanna and her fellow guards are guilty of selecting prisoners to be killed, because there was no longer room for them when new prisoners arrived. That’s how it worked. “What would you have done?” Hanna asks her inquisitor, and he doesn’t have an answer. If she had not been the one to choose, it would have been someone else.
In-between these scenes, Michael and a small group of fellow law students discuss the implications of the trial with their professor (Bruno Ganz), but these conversations are less interesting. They play like Hare interrupting his screenplay for a self-conscious workshop on the movie’s themes — “Don’t forget, class, your papers on complicity in Holocaust-era Oscar bait are due next Thursday.”
Daldry’s direction is effective, though overly sentimental. This quality was well suited to the more subjective material of The Hours, which coupled with an evocative score by Philip Glass created a nearly dreamlike effect. For this film, however, it is sometimes a burden. Reading is an essential part of Michael’s relationship with Hanna, and there are late scenes in which they communicate via audio tapes — the film cuts between them underneath an ostentatious score by Nico Muhly — that feel a bit like an Afterschool Special about literacy. Daldry shows a conspicuous interest in nude bodies; his intent early on may be to convey the budding sexuality of Michael’s adolescent mind, which is excited by encounters with an older, more sophisticated woman, but there are moments where it is an unnecessary distraction. Consider the scene where Winslet rises out of the water while swimming, and the focus, perhaps unintentional and almost comic in its effect, is on her prominent nipples under her wet bra.
There is a great scene that is distinguished by its relative simplicity. The older Michael visits a Holocaust victim whose mother was a witness at Hanna’s trial. She is Ilana Mather, played by Lena Olin. The reason for his visit provides inherent dramatic tension, and the actors are excellent in the way they show their characters feeling their way through, especially Olin, who expresses suspicion mixed with sympathy.
The film is well acted, particularly by Winslet, who in addition to the role’s emotional demands must contend with the oppressive makeup. She plays Hanna as neither a villain nor an innocent victim, but rather as a woman who doesn’t know what other decisions she could have made and only gradually comes to understand their consequences.
There are few bad scenes in The Reader. Several good ones. Many that don’t quite work. And the persistent feeling throughout that you should be getting more out of them than you are, that you should be focused on character and story but instead are preoccupied by nagging problems in narrative structure, strange distractions in its style, and telling the time.