In post-WWII Germany, nearly a decade after his passionate affair with the somewhat older Hanna (Kate Winslet) came to a mysteriously sudden end, law student Michael Berg (David Kross) is surprised to find her as a defendant in a war-crime trial.
Review by Louise Keller:
Law versus morality is at the chilling heart of this potent film whose complex themes begin with a young man's first sexual encounter and traverses uncomfortable territory including that of harrowing war crimes. Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare, who collaborated on The Hours, have adapted Bernhard Schlink's book with such impetus that the full weight of the shame, guilt and conscience the film carries descends on us, like an avalanche that drags us down, almost to the pits of despair. It is also a story about secrets. In this story that emanates from World War II, what, how and why things happen fascinate us, but it is their context and nuance that is critical. Like a gripping novel, The Reader takes hold of us and never lets go.
Like in The Hours, there are spasmodic jumps in time here, and it is left to us to piece together the strands. The mainstay of the story begins in Germany in 1958, when David Kross's 15 year old Michael falls ill and is helped by Kate Winslet's Hanna Schmitz, a 30 year old bus conductor with a brusque manner. It is when Michael returns to thank her, their passionate and sensual affair begins. These are key scenes and ones in which we intuitively know the unfathomable Hanna is tortured by something in her past. There is lust and affection and Hanna's request for Michael to read books to her becomes their foreplay. He reads books like The Lady With The Little Dog, War and Peace, Huckleberry Fin, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tin Tin. Thus begins their haunting story - and the equally extraordinary performances by Kate Winslet and David Kross, both deserving of the highest acclaim. Winslet is simply magnificent; Kross (in his first English-speaking role) is a revelation. Their passion signals the end of Michael's innocence. But not in the way he expects. The scars of this relationship are not visible until much later, and impact on him for the rest of his life.
Produced by the late Anthony Minghella and Sidney Pollack, The Reader raises issues of fundamental morality. We understand the different pain and conflict facing both Hanna and Michael and cry for each of them. That scene when the present day quietly withdrawn Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) meets with Lena Olin's Auschwitz survivor is as unsettling and telling as any you will ever see. The story is shocking, but in a way that will surprise and unsettle you.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The two primary producers of The Reader, the late Anthony Minghella and the late Sydney Pollack, would have been proud of the film had they lived to see it finished. David Hare's sensitive treatment of a challenging, nuanced subject is adroitly directed by Stephen Daldry, full of the textures, subtleties and complexities that make this story so compelling and memorable. But the less you know about the story, and the more you discover its intricacies and its arc for yourself, the more you'll enjoy the film. (Of course, if you've read the successful book ... )
One of young Michael's tasks before or after lovemaking with Hanna is to be her reader; anything from Homer's The Odyssey to Chekhov's The Lady with the Little Dog. This is a crucial element of the story, for reasons we learn obtusely at the trial, information that propels the emotional complexity of our understanding of Hanna. It is related to the secret that Michael retains about Hanna - a decision that exercises our moral compass as we, too, wrestle with the concepts of guilt, justice, redemption and lots more besides. And the relevance to these issues of several nude / sex scenes is abundantly clear: they go to character, as do all our actions.
So without spoiling the viewing experience for you, I can say that Kate Winslet is wonderful as Hanna, at first mysterious in a brittle sort of way, later having to be mysterious in other ways.
David Kross is outstanding in his first English language role as the young Michael, a teenager who falls ill and is comforted one rainy afternoon by this stranger. Bruno Ganz is authoritative as the law professor who poses pertinent (and large) questions to Michael about the human condition, and Hannah Hertzsprung (of 4 Minutes fame) is also terrific in another small but pivotal role as the adult Michael's daughter.
The screenplay jumps back and forth a couple of times to the older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) but these jumps add to the richness of the storytelling. Fiennes laps up these roles of grown men who may have feelings but find themselves unable to be open to those around them. (See Fiennes in the recent The Duchess for another example.)
While the film's subject matter is rooted in the Holocaust, this is a very different angle from which to approach that catastrophe. A valid one, too.
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READER, THE (MA 15+)
CAST: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Jeanette Hain, David Kross, Susanne Lothar, Alissa Wilms, Florian Bartholomai, Friederike Becht, Matthias Habich, Hannah Herzsprung
PRODUCER: Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti, Redmond Morris
DIRECTOR: Stephen Daldry
SCRIPT: David Hare (book by Bernhard Schlink)
EDITOR: Calire Simpson
MUSIC: Nico Muhly
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Brigitte Broch
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 19, 2009