The Weinstein Company
Showcase Cinemas, Michigan Theater
2.5 out of 5 stars
“The Reader” was set for success. It’s headlined by Ralph Fiennes (“The Duchess”) and Kate Winslet (“The Holiday”) and it has a script adapted by Oscar-nominated writer David Hare (“The Hours”). It’s also under the directorial guidance of Stephen Daldry, the man behind “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot.” Regardless of its phenomenally talented cast and crew, somehow “The Reader” falls a bit flat.
The film tells the life story of lawyer Michael Berg (Fiennes) by piecing together excerpts from significant moments in his life. Beginning in pre-World War II Berlin, a young, sickly Michael (David Kross, “Krabat”) has a chance encounter with a much older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Despite a visible awkwardness between the two, Michael and Hanna start sleeping together, and Michael reads to Hanna from his schoolbooks during his visits. The pair’s relationship, as well as their sex, isn’t so much shocking as it is tedious. There’s no visible chemistry or affection between the two. Nonetheless, they share a brief summer together until the war begins and Hannah disappears from Michael’s life.
Fast-forwarding to over a decade later, the film heats up when Michael goes to law school to study the Nuremburg trials. Hanna appears in his life again, except this time she is on trial for the crimes she committed as a prison guard in a concentration camp. The weighty questions of justice in the courtroom provide an interesting contrast to the otherwise ethereal feel of the film. As he tries to explain the issues of the trial, Michael insists, “We are trying to understand.”
Yes, it certainly seems that way. The past few months have seen the releases of contrived Holocaust movies like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Defiance.” It appears that audiences and directors are all still trying to understand the horrors of the Holocaust, and perhaps we never truly will if we rely on these overdone Holocaust films that offer little historical perspective and so few answers.
A matter of more pressing concern to the audience, however, should be trying to understand why Hanna has such a pull on Michael. The film alternates choppily between past- and present-day Michael and the only element that continues to connect the two is Michael’s continued obsession with Hanna. Yet their relationship never seemed that passionate to begin with.
Hanna is a rather flat character, though by no fault of Winslet, who does an amazing job with what she is given. It doesn’t seem like there was much room in the script for her to expand her cinematic role.
Kross does a fine job as the younger Michael Berg, although it is not until halfway through the movie that he actually begins delivering on his potential. As the older Michael, Fiennes is acceptable, but the role doesn’t really let him distinguish himself.
The movie drags at times, especially in the present-day setting, but there is enough material and intrigue in the plot to keep the audience’s interest. The ending is totally unexpected, given that the theme of reconciliation and acceptance is carried out a bit excessively. As could be expected from a movie called “The Reader,” the original novel on which the film is based does a much better job of communicating a fabulous story.