This is a fine drama but I’m not sure it deserves a best picture nomination. Like Frost/Nixon it is held together by performances, like Rachel Getting Married it has some flaws. Kate Winslet is 99% fantastic, channeling Marlene Dietrich as a German woman named Hannah nearing 40, and still working as a ticket taker on a tram. One day a young man named Michael (David Kross) is sick on her trolley and she helps him; later his mother urges him to go thank her, and a spontaneous affair begins when he peeks at her putting on her stockings.
The first act of the movie is Summer of ’42 and the lovers spent a great deal of time naked. Some complain, but this feels and looks natural. It doesn’t stand out as gratuitous, but shows how prudish most movies actually are these days. As the physical relationship softens and becomes an emotional one, young Michael begins to read to her. It becomes obvious to us watching that Hannah cannot read, but the movie treats this as a surprise later. Perhaps if the movie wasn’t called “The Reader,” and I didn’t immediately think “who’d need a reader? a blind person, or an illiterate?” it could have been a surprise. But it is not, and the movie feels clumsy when it tries to make it so. As Michael ignores the beautiful young girls flowering around him at school, Hannah one day disappears, breaking his heart but freeing him to live a normal life.
We see Michael go to university, years later, where he is studying law. His ethics teacher wants his students to know the difference between law and morality; he takes them to the trial of SS guards charged with the murder of Jews. And Michael sees Hannah again, and she’s not a member of the jury. The “secret” of her illiteracy becomes the linchpin of who is the guiltiest person on trial, and she is too ashamed to admit it. And it becomes obvious that her shame of illiteracy led her to become a guard during the war, and “sign” a statement she could not know the contents of. At first this seems like a clever construct- what if someone ended up a monster through no motive of their own? But it is not. Does redemption exist for ordinary people who followed the rules and abetted atrocities? Or are they just scapegoats for the entire country?
Soon it is Michael’s turn to stand up to the unstoppable engines of the government, justice, and the country’s demand for absolution. Like Hannah, he has a shameful secret he is loathe to reveal, and makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. For every whistleblower, for every man who stands up to the tanks at Tienanmen Square, for every Oskar Schindler there were a million people who just went along. The Reader is about those people.
Michael’s shame weighs down on him throughout his life and makes him distant from his nonexistent wife and neglected daughter. Played by Ralph Fiennes, he manages to be quiet yet expressive, a shadow of the passionate young man he once was. The third act is his attempt at redemption with Hannah, his daughter, and a survivor, and the weakest part of the film. There are plenty of good scenes, but the pacing is languid and the editing awkward. Like The Return of the King, it doesn’t know when it’s ending, and we get several denouements. We get a clumsy and unnecessary flashback structure with bookends, and it weakens the film.
I think it is still worth seeing, and the performances of Winslet, Kross and Fiennes hold together the director’s clumsy web. If you want to see Kate’s nipples, they’re like the double crimson sunsets on Tatooine in Star Wars on the big screen. Her make-up is excellent and while not as creepy as Benjamin Button’s, she ages convincingly. With her accent and severe expressions, Winslet proves that she can transform into a character- even if that character is eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair. Only once, when she smiles up at us, did she remind me who she was. It wouldn’t be an outrage if she got the Oscar for it.
4 big red Nazi nipples out of 5