Film: The Reader
Director: Stephen Daldry
Producers: Sydney Pollack,
Donna Gigliotti, Anthony
Minghella, Redmond Morris
Writer: David Hare
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, David Kross
Runtime: 124 minutes
There may be nothing worse in cinema than an average drama. The point of the genre is to comment on the human condition, to draw the viewer into a conflict that they can sympathize with, that moves them in ways that a comedy or action film simply can’t do. When a drama completely misses the mark, it’s easier to rationalize it, to dismiss it as a flop. But “The Reader” doesn’t miss the mark, nor does it hit it – it’s the epitome of mundane, meekly commenting on the relationships of men and women in ways we’re all too familiar with.
Occurring primarily in flashbacks, “Reader” tells the story of Michael Berg (Fiennes as an adult, Kross as a teenager) at key points during his life. While on his way home from school, Berg suddenly becomes ill, collapsing in an alley. He is helped home by a stranger, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). After he recovers, he goes to thank her for her kindness, but quickly develops a strong sexual attraction to her. After a second encounter, the two begin a summer-long affair, which is cut short when Schmitz receives a promotion and is forced to move. Some years later, Berg heads off to law school, where he takes a class that sits in on trials. Coincidentally, the trial they’re studying is that of six women who were guards at Auschwitz and are being accused of conspiring with the Nazi party. What comes as a shock to Berg is that the head of the guards is none other than Schmitz. Berg now has to deal with the secrets of his past and how they may influence both his and Schmitz’s current situation.
What is ultimately the biggest flaw in “Reader” is the blandness that is used in the set and costume design. They’re just boring to look at. While this might not seem like a big deal, especially in a drama, it sets up a tone for the movie that makes it seem longer and drabber than usual. We painfully watch as Berg, whether adult or teen, moves from boring scene to boring scene, either starry-eyed by Schmitz, or reminiscing about years past. Although the plot is moving along through these scenes at a reasonable pace, the film as a whole seems to drag because of it.
The biggest surprise is how this also affects Winslet. One could go into this movie safely assuming that she’ll deliver yet another knock-out performance. Sadly, that’s not the case. She’s by no means bad – it might be impossible for her to deliver a poor performance – but she’s definitely not on top of her game. She exudes the same blandness that the backdrops of post-WWII Germany exude. And while that era of Germany may be bleak, a better director would have been able to make these characters stand out in a more unique manner.
The story of “The Reader” never elevates itself as something that’s merely just there to tie characters together. It says nothing profound, but it does try to say something at the same time. The notion of secrets and what they can do to a person is a running theme throughout, but in the end it lacks any emotional punch. By the time the credits roll, viewers will wonder what, exactly, the point of the two-hour film was, and why they even bothered to see it in theaters.
But not everything is all gloom and doom. For a film that jumps back and forth in time, it does so smoothly and in a way that audiences can immediately pick-up on. This was accomplished with some great editing and without the use of inter-titles to signify jumps in time which, when used in most films, makes the audience feel dumb.
If there’s a saving grace of “The Reader,” it’s that it doesn’t treat the audience like a bunch of children. Its adult subject matter is presented in a way that adults can understand. The problem is that the subject matter is one that leaves little impact.