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Winslet flexes acting muscles in “The Reader”

Maija Gustin | Sunday, February 8, 2009

“The Reader”, based on the novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, tells the story of a young boy in post-World War II Germany who embarks on a passionate affair with an older woman. “The Reader” is nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress. Director Stephen Daldry had tremendous material to work with, both in the novel and in the screenplay by David Hare, and was successful in some areas while perhaps failing in others.

In the film, young Michael (David Kross) becomes sick on his way home from school and is helped home by an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). After a long recovery, Michael returns to the site of his illness to thank her with flowers.

She, both for her beauty and for her poise, entrances him, and a torrid affair begins.

She awakens Michael’s awareness of his own body, and in return, he reads to her. She devours the great literature that he reads aloud, and it acts as a precondition to sex: he must read to her first. But one day, Hanna disappears without a word to Michael. It is not until many years later that Michael sees Hanna again.

This time, Michael is a law student sitting in on proceedings for a war crimes trial from World War II. Hanna is there, being tried as a concentration camp guard. But this history was not the only secret Hanna kept. During the course of the trial, Michael learns an even deeper secret of Hanna’s, one that has dictated her entire life, and one that forced her into the harrowing situation of this trial.

“The Reader” is a beautiful film that is best when giving a glimpse into the intimate interactions between Hanna and Michael. Some have deemed it too overtly sexual, but that is precisely the point. This isn’t a relationship about love, at least not at the beginning; it is only a fulfillment of the individual needs of the two characters. To shy away from the nudity and sexuality would also dishonor the source material.

But the sex is never gratuitous; rather, it is the manner by which the audience comes to understand the characters.

Daldry also succeeds in his subtle hints at Hanna’s secret. He wants the audience to be aware, but always left guessing. However, the next stage of Michael’s life, the time of the trial, is perhaps where the film fails the most. The war crimes trial is admittedly exciting and intriguing, but the film itself seems too stable, relying only on the plot and the acting to drive it.

But as the trial comes to an end, and the film begins to center on the older Michael (Ralph Fiennes), Daldry’s grace and beauty of storytelling return. The final half hour of the film is emotional and poignant. It brings Michael and Hanna together again, in perhaps an unexpected way, and provides a sort of closure for both.

Where “The Reader” succeeds the most is in the acting. Relative newcomer David Kross both revels in his own youth and exemplifies maturity far beyond his age in the film. His role is difficult, but he never shies away from it. Even though he was only 17 during filming, Kross also holds his own against the veteran Winslet and brings warmth to the film.

Ralph Fiennes is excellent as well. His screen time is less and mostly reserved for the end of the film, and his performance has been critically overlooked, but he serves as an anchor to an emotionally tumultuous story.

Kate Winslet, though, is the real backbone of the film. She received her sixth Academy Award nomination for “The Reader,” and is well deserving of it. Most critics anticipated that Winslet’s Oscar nomination would come from “Revolutionary Road” this year. But where she displays traditional acting chops in “Revolutionary Road,” with emotionally charged arguments with her husband and a fight against normalcy in the suburbs, she is perfectly understated as Hanna Schmitz. She does not have long tirades and monologues to display her abilities. She is always strong and sure, never wavering in her character, and making no apologies for what she must do. She is deserving of the praise she has received, and truly carries the film on her shoulders.

“The Reader” is brutally honest. It does not glaze over the controversial themes of the original novel, and never tries to preach a message. It also never asks for pity for Hanna. It simply wants one to think – perhaps about understanding motives, or about secrecy, or even about one’s own life. “The Reader” leaves that up to you.

Contact Maija Gustin at mgustin@nd.edu