As a love story The Reader references the moral dilemmas of the Holocaust but it pulls its punches just a bit too much. Review by Fiona Williams.
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19 Feb 2009 - 4:30 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 11:30 PM

The Reader is a weighty film that explores the degrees to which guilt and responsibility linger for Germans living in the shadow of the Holocaust; though for convenience and palatability, the themes of subterfuge, shame and betrayal are boiled down into the story of a brief but life-changing post-war affair.

The film opens in the 90s, to a minimalist apartment where middle-aged lawyer Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is politely but firmly, showing a one-night-stand the door. Taking the hint she asks, “Do any of your women ever get to stay long enough to find out what's going on inside your head?” His taut smile and extended glance at the unmade bed provide a clue, and a passing tram signals the first of many flashbacks about the origins of his detachment...

Fighting the early stages of scarlet fever, 15 year-old Michael (David Kross) doubles over in a laneway outside the flat of thirty-something tram conductor Hanna (Kate Winslet), who takes him in and mops his brow. After several months of recuperation, he returns to thank her for the random act of kindness, and they begin a clandestine affair that only lasts a summer but consumes the young, randy Michael. In his youthful enthusiasm he falls hard for the aloof Hanna, who rarely shows emotion other than when read to by her lover, whom she calls “kid”.

One day after a spat, Hanna packs up and leaves town without warning, leaving a heartbroken Michael reeling in her wake. A decade later he's a withdrawn 23 year-old law student (with a wariness of women) when by chance he encounters his literature-loving cougar once again – she is a defendant in the domestic Nazi trials. Hanna's sinister past has caught up with her, and exposed her as one of Hitler's willing executioners.

As a defendant Hanna shows little remorse for her actions. ('What would you have done?' she demands of the judge) but her testimony reveals a secret to Michael that he believes helps explain her actions (without excusing them). If he speaks out, there's a good chance she'll receive a more lenient sentence.

To reveal any more would involve plot spoilers, but the 'twist' turns the tables and suddenly Michael is faced with a dilemma over whether he should intervene to a prevent a miscarriage of justice, or stay silent and let a still-guilty party (and one that broke his heart, no less), get what's coming to her.

At this point I should make it clear that I haven't read the book (nor had it read to me, for that matter), so I can't comment on The Reader's merits as an adaptation. I would hazard a guess that the novel is a far more complex study of guilt and the consequences of inaction, than is realised on screen.

Many of the film's critics take issue with the fact the Holocaust is used as a backdrop for a saucy romp; outraged that this century's worst example of inhumanity could be used as a mere catalyst for a love story. This isn't my beef with the film; surely, not all Holocaust films need to be Schindler's List in order to pose confronting questions. Besides, it's fairly obvious that the moral quandaries inherent in The Reader go deeper than simply Hanna's bad career choices and Michael's poor judgement of women.

The main problem with The Reader is that it feels like one long, pulled punch. Tellingly, for all its time-shifting between past and present (a narrative structure created for the film), The Reader contains no depiction of the actual episode of mass murder for which Hanna is being tried… the morality of her decision (and defence of it) is never interrogated, and we aren't given the opportunity to test her defence that she had no choice but to go along with it, as she suggests in the question she accusingly hurls the judge. The ending also, feels pat if not incredibly condescending to Holocaust survivors.

That said, the film's flaws aren't Winslet's doing. She carries the film as Hanna, with all of her inherent conflicts and contradictions. She sees Hanna through to her advancing years, despite a fairly unconvincing fat suit, cloudy contacts and heavy makeup.

Ricky Gervais, in his nudge-nudge-wink-winking way, hit the nail on the head at the Golden Globes when he ribbed Kate Winslet about making good on her fictional comments about Holocaust films. The Reader smacks of 'Oscar bait' and Winslet will probably get the gold statuette that has thus far eluded her, but one can't help but think that it's a case right year, wrong film. Winslet is the best thing about The Reader but Hanna is by no means her best role of the year, and it's disappointing that it has overshadowed her stronger, more memorable showing in the outstanding Revolutionary Road.

3 / 5