The Reader

3 01 2009


Not all movies that revolve around a serious topic, or that have intelligent dialogue, are necessarily either coherent or intelligent themselves.  This might be a very good example of a work in which the parts, each rather finely tuned, don’t fit well together to leave the viewer with a sense of what is going on, or why.  It’s far from a bad movie, but it may also be far from a good one.


Michael (David Kross), a German teenager at the end of World War II, becomes ill with scarlet fever and is befriended by a tram conductor, Hanna (Kate Winslet).  They sleep together, again and again, and he is enraptured not only by her but also by the thought of being her lover.  She develops a pattern of having him read to her before sex.  He reads all sorts of things, and with the exception of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, she loves it all.  One day he takes her to the country for lunch at a little restaurant, and she is so charmed by him and by being there that she lets him do the ordering; he feels grown-up and proud, especially when the innkeeper mistakes her for his mother.  She does such good work on the tram, meanwhile, that her supervisor indicates one day she is to be promoted to a desk job.  Instantly she packs and leaves town, without a word to the boy.  Years later, he is a law student learning sophisticated criminal technique from a famous professor (Bruno Ganz), who takes his students to a war trial in which several women have been accused of working for the S.S. during the war, and of torturing and killing Jews.  One of the women, he sees to his shock, is Hanna.  She is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Part of the evidence involved a document she purportedly wrote–a report of an atrocity the women committed when they failed to free three hundred Jewish prisoners who were locked inside a church that was struck by a bomb and caught fire.  The principal witness for the prosecution, visiting from America, is the sole survivor of this catastrophe, and her daughter, author of an important new book about it.  Michael suddenly realizes about Hanna that she must be innocent, because she can neither read nor write.  This is why she insisted he read to her, and why at the country restaurant she did not read the menu.  But instead of sharing his knowledge with the court, he silently witnesses as she goes off to prison:  the alternative would be to shame her.  Then for years he sends her audio tapes, with him reading the books she most loved–the preeminent one being Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog.  Day by day, using his tape as a guide with which to read a copy of the volume she has borrowed from the prison library, Hanna learns to read and then to write.  When, finally, she can be released, he agrees to find a job for her and to help her find an apartment.  But on the morning he goes to the prison to collect her, he finds that she has killed herself.  For him, she has left a little decorative metal tea caddy full of money, with instructions that he give the money to the daughter of the woman who had testified at her trial.  He goes to New York and meets the woman in her lavish apartment.  She will not take the money, but agrees to let him found a charity for addressing illiteracy among American Jews.  The tea caddy, however, reminds her of one she lost in her youth, and she will accept it.

It is difficult to find enjoyment in watching all this.  Hanna is strained in all her lovemaking with Michael, so the scenes are less than erotic.  The trial scenes clearly debilitate the boy, who is torn between his love for the woman and her modesty, and his love for the professor and the law, which dictate that he reveal what he knows about Hanna’s illiteracy.  Worst of all, the grown Michael (Ralph Fiennes) lacks the spontaneity, the passion, the eagerness, and the directness of the boy he was, so that in  his maturity (as a successful lawyer) he is altogether boring.  The best moments come when we see him alone in his apartment, recording tapes for Hanna.  As he reads from author after author, we hear, in moments, the rich baritone voice of a beautifully trained stage actor (which is what Fiennes is), but even here, he holds back from really committing to the reading or the devotion involved.

The picture is handsomely shot by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, with modest lighting and a sense of color derived from Balthus.  The performance by Kross is astonishing–this is a major new talent.  Fiennes sounds better than he looks.  And Winslet–who unaccountably has been nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor for this work–has never been more affecting, more penetrating, or purer in film.  This is a truly great performance.  But as with the others, it stands in a kind of moral vacuum.