I suspect there’s something about the way I didn’t like Stephen Daldry’s unforgivably dull Holocaust drama The Reader that only serves to further underline all the problems I’m having with it. You’re just not supposed to badmouth a movie whose subject is as important as this one. What really annoys me, then, is that The Reader seems so aware of this more or less internalized viewer reaction that it completely ignores the need to speak to me as a viewer on something more than a gut level. It’s not that it doesn’t try to engage me, it’s more that it’s done with such heavy-handed symbolism and dubious moral claims that I’m left utterly frustrated and, worse still, bored. Some of its proponents claim that it’s an extraordinarily complex movie, but while I acknowledge that the moral dilemma at its core had the potential to be interesting, every little hint at complexity is eventually abandoned in favor of over-explained dialogues, sentimentalizing musical and visual tableaus and transcendent pleas for emotional investmest based on cliched assumptions about how an audience is supposed to react to a Holocaust movie. This is not to say that it doesn’t try to say something new, only that it seems so sure it will fail to convince us through the power of the story, that it instead regularly falls back on invoking knee-jerk reactions to the broader subject.
One of the central problems I’m having with it however, is more or less a moral one. While I’m initially sympathetic to the power of words, and I do believe that reading will make you a wiser person, I remain unconvinced by The Reader‘s seemingly implicit claim that Hanna Schmitz’s (Kate Winslet) intellectual curiosity (represented by her love of the books being read to her), will somehow make her seem more human. Yes, I know this argument is never made in exactly that way in the movie (which means it is one of the very few things never explained down to such a completely demystified and airless level of clarity), but the central point that is made of the fact that Hanna asks the women of the concentration camp to read to her, makes it a plausible interpretation. While the mood of the movie is not outright apologetic toward Hanna, it at least prompts me to ask whether loving literature, or being illiterate should purge you of all or most of the personal responsibility that was ruled a basic principle through the Nuremberg trials? I’m simplifying here of course, and The Reader doesn’t necessarily come down on one side of the issue, but no matter how much it may try to hide behind complexity, I still think its politics is somewhat disturbing. The entire premise of this argument then also makes it harder for me to accept the sense of guilt that seemingly mars her young lover Michael Berg (David Kross/Ralph Fiennes) for the rest of his life.
Still, if Stephen Daldry had had a little more faith in his audience, at least the love story aspect of the movie could have worked. But instead of showing what initially had the potential to be an at least mildly interesting story about the often pathetic dynamics of relationships between young and old lovers, he hammers us over the head with not-at-all subtle hints at Hanna’s illiteracy (at times that even seems like a reason for her to wear every emotion on her sleeve), dealt with such a heavy hand that the most convincing sign Michael is actually in love with her is that he’s too into her to see what we viewers understand almost immediately. That said, it’s never a good thing to make your protagonist seem this slow.
Perhaps it’s not fair, but to me it’s a little disappointing that this was the film that should finally earn Kate Winslet her long-awaited and well-deserved Academy Award. Despite several scripted tricks to make Hanna seem more interesting than she really is, I’ve seen Winslet better in other movies, most notably in Revolutionary Road, for which she was scandalously snubbed this year. She fights bravely to tone down the excesses of the script, but she doesn’t always succeed (check out the scene early in the film where she has taken off with young David Kross, and is seemingly overwhelmed by the freedom. She’s all emotion, no nuance. It’s painful to watch, but apart from that, she’s doing good). David Kross certainly has the boyish charms to fill the type, but at the same time his acting in the heavier scenes (and there are lots of them) feels oddly disengaged. His dramatic range isn’t quite big enough for me, even though I know many would disagree. At least this sense of disengagement makes it eminently plausible that he would grow up to be as blandly dull as Ralph Fiennes.
In his review, Franz – who liked the movie a lot more than I did – rightly pointed out that the film suffers from all too many finales. In fact, I suspect my review wouldn’t have been nearly as harsh (but still nowhere near good) if it hadn’t been for one of these last ‘closure’ scenes, featuring Michael Berg and a relative of one of Hanna’s victims. Not wamting to spoil things for people who have yet to see it prevents me from being more specific, but leaving absolutely nothing up to the viewer, Daldry – again – spells out in every detail exactly what we’re seeing, how we should interpret it, and how it’s supposed to make us feel. Despite what you might think, I actually don’t revel in tearing this movie apart, but still I can’t find something to better sum up my feelings about it than to paraphrase The Magnetic Fields: Can you not stand me at all?/(…) I can’t take your perpetual whining.