Based on Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 Holocaust novel of the same name, The Reader balances brilliantly the dark, menacing undertones of war (and the ugly things one must do to survive) with the innocent purity of first love. This combination of opposites works incredibly well to produce a controversial film that challenges the very beliefs which make us human.
It all begins with Kate Winslet’s spell-binding performance as Hanna Schmitz, as she seduces a 15-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) in the summer of 1958. This seduction leads to a torrid and secretive romance which abruptly and devastatingly ends at the change of the seasons. The story, told through the unknowing eyes of the heartbroken, love-struck school boy years later when he is an adult (and played by Ralph Fiennes), is a recollection of happenings starting when he bore witness to a trial of several females accused of being SS guards involved with the killing of hundreds of Jewish women during WWII. To his disbelief, he learns that the woman he loved and read to as a young man is one of the accused. However, as the trial progresses Michael comes to know of a closely guarded secret of Hanna’s that could lessen her sentence; but should he reveal it even though she doesn’t want anyone to know of it?
Constantly tampering with the audience’s sympathy and echoing many of the complicated emotional aspects of Joe Wright’s Atonement, The Reader is an unusual Hollywood product. You feel, while watching this film, the pages actually turn as the scenes progress, gradually building up with tension to the unexpected climax. You become attached to the characters and easily identify with their plight throughout the duration of the movie. This is certainly not a strong talent many of today’s film-makers possess, so director Stephen Daldry should be commended for his effort (as should screen writer David Hare for his difficult job of adapting the novel for the screen).
Having similar narrative traits to Stanley Kubrick’s classic A Clockwork Orange, The Reader holds the same uniqueness in being able to tap into the viewer’s mind and debate how far punishments should go in a civilized, “humane” society. If I was to sum-up this understated adaptation in three words, I would use: Romantic; Thought-provoking; Refreshing. It deserves much of the praise the Academy is lauding upon it.