May 31, 2009

Notes on The Reader

It is difficult to really like Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Reader’, despite the Oscar buzz it generated or Kate Winslet’s numerous award wins. For a film that pretends to examine the whole issue of moral ambiguity, it is oddly predictable, maudlin, and in places, even frivolous. In my opinion The Reader is a good example of how wasted even great actors can be when they are part of a project that is shorn of even the most rudimentary exercise of creativity or vision. Individually there are parts of The Reader that dazzle you, but sadly the whole does not create a similar effect.

Also, The Reader seems to have been made so obviously keeping the Oscars in mind – the tried and tested theme of Holocaust guilt, quotes from and references to great literature, the rain drenched, wintry continental landscape and an unmitigated air of mourning – that whatever genuine moments do exist, lose their efficacy. First, Hollywood directors have to understand that it’s time to move beyond the Holocaust, not that I’m trivializing it. I see a similar syndrome shaping up with regard to Bush’s invasion of Iraq – it will come to epitomize America’s worst capitalist and discriminatory impulses in years to come. But that is far from the truth. America has done worse and we need to think beyond stereotypes. Sure, the invasion was a shame, as was Auswitch, but mankind has silently stood by too many other shameful incidents in China, Cambodia, Rwanda, Afghanisthan, and other places for filmmakers to repeatedly circle the same corpses like carrion birds.

In this story of personal awakening, we have Michael Berg (played as a teenager by David Kross and an adult by Ralph Fiennes) enter into a brief but passionate affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a woman much older to him. The grungy, gloomy and cramped apartment that is Hannah’s home forms the backdrop to their passionate encounters in which sex and reading are irrevocably joined. Michael has to first read to Hannah from literature as diverse as Tintin comics to Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ before which will she allow him to make love. Though the affair is short lived, only lasting the summer, it has a profound impact on both their lives. When Hannah suddenly disappears one day, Michael is left bereft with a hole in his heart that nothing and nobody he meets later in life can fill. The film jumps a couple of years when Berg, now a law student, attends a trial where Hannah is the defendant for her role as a guard in the wartime death camps in Auswitch. There is something that Michael knows about his former lover that will surely mitigate her sentence, but he chooses to remain silent and Hannah is sentenced to life in prison.

In a film that likes to make obvious most of its underlying themes, Daldry exhibits reticence and manages to convey well the horror, guilt and shame that stop the young Michael from standing up for the truth. He is challenged to discover that he cares about someone whom he ought to rightfully despise. While The Reader aims to examine many aspects of guilt and culpability (and not all pertaining to World War II), it is often way too evident in its approach.

What this silence will cost both of them and what if anything at all, can emerge out of a bond, no matter how shameful or sordid it may appear to society, is the larger question that the film examines in the rest of the film. There comes a point in The Reader when you know you have been moved, but just not enough; when you know a terrible thing has taken place before your eyes, but you’re too disconnected to care. And it is precisely when I was feeling thus that the narrative delivers a punch, which frankly could be the only kind of redemption that is allowed to its flawed protagonists. To disclose what happens is to kill what makes The Reader worth watching. In a scene that extends well over 8 odd minutes and is underscored by the most divine music by Nico Muhly, with Ralph Fiennes reading aloud passages from great literature, we have the essence of The Reader; it answers the question of salvation or its lack thereof.

Kate Winslet as Hannah embodies the contradictions of the role perfectly, and in a way that makes perfect sense when we learn all her guilty secrets. We understand how the toughness and coldness she exhibits in the beginning are a product of her self-defensiveness and shame - not just because of the surprising secret that Michael knows alone, but also because of the guilt that she feels over the horrific things she's done, and her firm conviction that she is not really deserving of love. That's what made it so shattering later on when the defenses have been stripped away and you see the fear, the vulnerability, and the weight of the choices she's made. Her hardness is a defense that allows her to carry on living. Once it's taken away from her, she crumbles. It is a testament to her superb acting skills that she manages to perform splendidly in a role that isnt supported by the best script & make up.

David Kross playing the teenaged Michael makes a stupendous international debut and successfully conveys the shame, confusion, thrill and joy of discovering and exploring his budding sexuality. He is angry at Hannah’s callous indifference, but also hopelessly devoted to her. Some of the film’s truly meaningful scenes with Michael are executed by David Kross, who effectively paves the way for the confused teenager to grow into a conflicted young man. Ralph Fiennes is his usual superb self but there isn’t much that he is given here to work with.

Daldry and David Hare who has written the screenplay, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, have earlier worked together in The Hours, a film that balances its handling of multiple time periods much more successfully than The Reader does. The cinematography by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins deserves mention. It creates the right shade of grey that is so suited to this grim examination of human frailty and connivance in the face of evil and its sudden impulse to do right when given a second chance.

Is The Reader a film worth watching? Sure, it is if you are a cinephile who loves to look beyond Slumdog Millionaire. However, if you are hard pressed for time or not really interested in international films, then you can surely give The Reader a miss.

Cross posted from here

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