Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Reader: Mesmerizing page-turner

The Reader (2008) • View trailer for The Reader
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexuality and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.19.09
Buy DVD: The Reader • Buy Blu-Ray: The Reader [Blu-ray]

Are monsters born ... or made?

And are they readily recognizable as such?

Director Stephen Daldry's compelling adaptation of Berlin law professor and mystery novelist Bernhard Schlink's The Reader is littered with weighty questions, many of which cannot be discussed here at risk of revealing too much to those not yet familiar with the storyline.
Delighted by his having persuaded Hanna (Kate Winslet) to join him for an
all-day bicycle outing in the countryside, Michael (David Kross) couldn't care
less if other people naturally assume that this older woman is his mother. He
knows better, and the delicate nature of this relationship is destined to have a
profound effect on his life and career.

Granted, that's likely very few potential viewers at this late remove, particularly in the wake of Kate Winslet's well-deserved Academy Award for her utterly mesmerizing performance.

But I still maintain that the greatest pleasure  if that's the proper emotion  to be derived from Daldry's film comes with the sense of discovery: particularly since screenwriter David Hare has so carefully and cleverly translated Schlink's highly personal (and deliberately tantalizing) book.

Although this film is set in three different time periods, it never becomes confusing; rather, we gain more insight each time the narrative bumps forward or moves backward.

Part mystery, part coming-of-age saga, at first The Reader feels like a German response to Herman Raucher's Summer of '42 and its 1971 film adaptation. The initial setting even is a close parallel: post-WWII Germany, where we're introduced to teenage Michael Berg (David Kross) as he becomes ill during a bus ride. He stumbles off the vehicle, all but overcome by a sudden wave of nausea, clearly unable to proceed any farther.

Michael's obvious distress catches the eye of Hanna (Winslet), a brusque blue- collar type; she cleans him up and helps him return home ... at which point he collapses from scarlet fever and remains an invalid for a period of time.

Already, though, we've witnessed the fascinating delicacy of Winslet's acting. Hanna's initial response to Michael's plight seems motivated less by compassion and more by a desire to restore order to her carefully balanced life; the young man has, after all, gotten sick all over the front area of the building where she lives. Her behavior is brusque to the point of being chill: more like what we'd expect from a gradeschool teacher who secretly dislikes children.

Time passes; Michael recovers. He retraces his steps out of both curiosity and a desire to thank his benefactor. Hanna is startled to see him again; Winslet's eyes reveal a mixture of surprise and something else ... suspicion? (This odd response becomes clear much later.) But eventually satisfied that the boy's motives are genuine, she relaxes and attempts something in the nature of cordiality.

It's almost more than she can manage.

Such uneasy tension notwithstanding, the two eventually  almost inevitably  fall into a tempestuous physical affair. We readily perceive that Hanna is Michael's first intimate encounter, and so his reasons for embracing the relationship are obvious; her motives are more difficult to determine. At the very least, though, we gradually perceive that Hanna is desperately lonely.

Not that she'd ever admit as much. Her short-tempered, almost brutish nature very nearly severs the thin strands of desire that bring them together, but there's probably no danger of that; Michael is well and truly infatuated. For her part, Hanna craves the warmth and human contact.

And something else, as it turns out. Michael, an enthusiastic and irrepressible student, can't help sharing the details of his studies; he lacks the perception to recognize that such scholarly pursuits might be completely alien to this working-class woman. As it happens, they aren't  at least, not completely  because Hanna soon asks him to share his interest: specifically to read to her. Stories. Novels. Poetry.

Their long afternoons become oddly ritualized: She sometimes withholds lovemaking until after he has read a few more chapters of the newest book; at other times his voice, as it transports her into the elsewhere of some author's fancy, becomes the equivalent of a post-coital cigarette. We watch as Hanna blossoms, becoming kinder (if not gentler) and more willing to embrace the joy that Michael provides.

Right about now, though, we recall the prologue that introduced us to Michael's older self, played by Ralph Fiennes. This Michael has become a lawyer, no doubt a successful one. He's also clearly unable to sustain a relationship, as evidenced by the way he dismisses a casual lover, who, for her part, expects nothing more.

At what point, we wonder, did the irrepressibly smitten young man, so in love with being in love, mature into an adult who apparently lacks any ability to connect with people emotionally?

Ah, that's the question.

Well, actually, only one of the questions.

Back in the younger Michael's storyline, time passes; things change. More time passes; things change enormously. The apparent coming-of-age saga becomes a weighty philosophical discourse on the nature of evil, and how it affects both those inflicting and victimized by it.

Can one be evil, without having the moral grounding to perceive repellent behavior? How can such a person be judged or punished, if no malice is involved?

Schlink has said that his book is designed to address those he dubs "the lucky late-born children of the post-war years."

"We grew up in a very naive way," he explains, "until, at some point, we realized just what our parents and pastors and teachers had done."

So, yes, in its own way The Reader is another of the many Holocaust-themed stories that have emerged during the past few years: yet another fresh way to experience this horrific period in history. Schlink's story  and Hare's adaptation  are both fascinating and intimate: an attempt to address the degree to which ordinary people might go along with something simply because it's expected of them.

Although Kross is every bit the shy teen getting his first experience of adulthood  and eminently believable in his role  Winslet owns this film. The subtleties of expression that cross Hanna's face paint a tapestry of emotion: at times a yearning desire to better herself, a hunger for knowledge that surpasses even Michael's.

But then, for no apparent reason, the doors slam shut; the inquisitive light fades from her eyes. Hanna looks about at where she lives, the way she lives, and we see resignation once again creep into Winslet's very bearing.

The actress is equally fearless with her physical self, baring body to the same degree that she bares her soul. The result is tender, intimate and erotic in ways too often absent from films that more exploitatively focus on coupling. This is lovemaking, not sex; the camera  cinematography duties shared by Chris Menges and Roger Deakins  becomes invasive. The moment feels too real; we're not sure we want to be there.

But since we want to know more about Hanna, we do want to be there.

Daldry's film is filled with scenes that are similarly powerful because of their intimacy, and what feels like spontaneity. (Ah, the magic of cinema, and of true acting talent: that a scene meticulously rehearsed, and probably filmed a dozen times, can emerge feeling like a lyrical, impulsive slice of real life.)

The most carefree sequence involves a rare public outing by bicycle, with Michael and Hanna reveling in each other's presence. This sudden explosion of countryside charm  flower-filled fields, birds, people  is a welcome relief from the claustrophobia of Hanna's apartment, and these wide-open spaces reflect the degree to which she, herself, is opening up.

But even here, clouds emerge; watch carefully as Hanna scans a menu at lunchtime, trying to determine what to order.

Later, in the film's third act  after much has become clear  the adult Michael finds himself compelled to once again read books aloud. In a way, this process awakens something within him, and the forces driving Michael are suggested with similar subtlety on Fiennes' features: an almost ruthless (guilty?) determination eventually giving way to a release of inner tension.

Back when he was a young man, reading aloud brought joy to the listener. Now, the older Michael begins to realize that reading aloud is helping him find himself.

The Reader is a difficult saga, and obviously not easy to fully capture. Despite my admiration for Hare's efforts, he stumbles a few times. We can't help wondering why the younger Michael's family  his parents and siblings  don't begin to wonder about his constant (and lengthy) absences. For that matter, Michael's siblings seem an oddly hostile lot, behaving as if they've thoroughly disliked him for years: a detail never addressed.

Eight years later, as Michael is in law school, some of the conversations exchanged with his most influential professor (Bruno Ganz, as Rohl) feel too staged and didactic: an attempt to hammer several issues home in our minds, rather than in Michael's. These sequences are unexpectedly sermonesque, when for the most part Daldry and Hare convey the necessary story elements much more gracefully and subtly.

These are minor issues, however: certainly not enough to detract from the power of so many other scenes, or from the superb acting by Winslet, Fiennes and Kross.

The Reader will prompt discussion, debate, even argument. This is the best type of drama: that which confronts the human condition and forces us to examine our very nature.

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