Tuesday, January 27, 2009

1/24/09: The Reader (2008)

The 2008 Academy Award nominations were announced last week, so in the interest of catching up with some of the year's better films I missed, I'll be turning my attention this week to current theatrical films that have been honored.

Warning: Contains spoilers. In 1958, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) begins an affair with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a 36-year-old cable car ticket taker. It's a story of love and sexual awakening...but before you can say "pedophile," it turns out Hanna has other more troubling skeletons in her closet: seems she was a former guard at Auschwitz who sent more than a few Jews to the incinerator.

Never moving at a pace faster than leisurely, The Reader offers two main characters who behave somewhat too enigmatically for comfort. As the credits to this Oscar contender for Best Picture rose, Joan (my faithful movie companion) told me she had a peculiar disdain for movies and plays that make her want to "hit the characters over the head with a stick" for their illogical behavior, particularly poor communication skills. When Hanna goes on trial for war crimes, she chooses to risk a life sentence in prison rather than simply copping to being illiterate (which likely would have led to a substantially reduced sentence). Michael, possessing compelling evidence that might help Hanna, chooses to do nothing with it.

Still, Oscar loves old-age makeup, and Winslet is totally convincing as both a woman in her 30s and in her 60s; Ralph Fiennes, meanwhile, is called in to portray Kross's character as an adult. On the one hand, this period drama (which is told through a series of flashbacks) lacks genuine emotional punch, but the acting is first-rate, and the film does raise some interesting questions about the true nature of Hanna—do we scorn her for her Nazi past and possible child molestation, or should we feel sympathetic because she's a victim of circumstance? It's a conundrum that Michael obviously wrestles with as well, and there lies the movie's main point of discussion. Winslet and Kross are extraordinary, Lena Olin has an excellent scene near the end as a Holocaust survivor, and Vijessna Ferkic, in a small role, is a vision of beauty as Sophie, a classmate who briefly catches Kross's eye. The Reader captured five Oscar nominations, among them Best Director (Stephen Daldry), Best Actress (Winslet), Best Screenplay Adaptation (David Hare) and Best Picture. Rating: 3/5.

No comments: