Stephen Daldry’s latest is a well acted, well paced, and a surprisingly twisted and turning plot that engages you from start to finish.
Michael Berg is a young boy living in Germany almost fifteen years after the end of WWII. While riding the tram home one day he finds himself getting sick and gets off and throws up in the alley. Coming to his aide is a 30 something woman who helps him out and gets him home in one piece to which he discovers he has scarlet fever. After three months in bed he finally gets the chance to visit the woman, Hannah (Kate Winslet), and much to Michael’s surprise she seduces him into an affair which runs the length of a summer. One of the things Hannah enjoys most is Michael reading to her before and/or after sex, and it becomes a source of enjoyment for both of them as the days pass. Years later, Michael is a law student and he signs up to be a part of a seminar that will observe a trial prosecuting alleged Nazi’s for their crimes during the war. When Michael gets to the trial he finds that one of the women on trial is a Hannah Schmitz, the same Hannah that he had spent a summer with, and she finds herself at risk of being handed possibly the harshest of punishment for the deaths of over 300 Jews during the war; for allowing them to burn in a church on a march from the abandoned Auschwitz camp in 1944.
This only gets you into the first third of the film or so, but I would hate to spoil the many turns this film takes all the way through the finish. Stephen Daldry has crafted another fantastic and brisk paced drama here as he did with The Hours. Though, I don’t hold this film as high as I do that one, it is one of the better pictures to actually stand out a bit in the end of the year releases in 08. The movie is also full of surprises and little twists along the way that will make you sit up and go, “oh,” and nothing is forced or stale for the sake of being shocking. The third act also could have easily strayed into the unbelievable in the nature of Michael’s deed, but everything is earned and feels genuine.
The acting in the film is also top-notch from head to toe with a couple of actors bravely bearing it all, literally, repeatedly. Playing a younger Michael, as the film is told through flashback, is David Kross and he captures the innocence of Michael easily as he traverses through sexual exploration with Hannah who starts off by almost using him and slowly something more comes of their relationship. Kross also does a fine job, though looks a bit young, when playing Michael in his college years and does a fine enough job conveying Michael’s mixed emotions with the proceedings of the trial and his feelings toward Hannah. Ralph Fiennes turns in a third great performance of the year as an older Michael who seems to still not quite right when it comes to women, and has some touching work throughout the films final act. A fantastic scene is one with the daughter of a victim from the church incident in question at the trial, and Fiennes and Lena Olin have a very powerful conversation filled with emotion, yet they play it subdued and always on the edge of losing it and it just work wonderfully at showing how the two understand each others feelings. Kate Winslet is the stand out here, and she is marvelous as usual as she takes on the accent, the nudity, and the sexuality and creates a compassionate character out of a suspected Nazi. She is a bit strict and ill tempered at times, but as Hannah finds herself and moves through the story, Winslet gives her pride, even if foolish, and creates a strong women out a an insecure mess that we begin with.
In the end, The Reader is one of the finer pedigree films of the award season. Fantastic acting, a great story, and some excellent filmmaking that will never leave you bored or wanting, The Reader has a lot going for it. It sits right outside my top films of the year, but I also sense some increased praise to be thrown on this movie as time passes, as I feel it is a deep picture that will reward subsequent viewings. See it for Winslet or if you are a fan of Daldry and the film’s setting, there is plenty to like here, and if it doesn’t blow you away, you shouldn’t be left feeling disappointed at all either.