Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Ides of March

I'm so full of shit. It isn't the ides of March at all. It's March 4th. No need to beware anything. I watched The Reader. Here's what I thought:

The Reader (2008)
Starring: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross
Directed By: Stephen Daldry
Rating: 6.5 (out of 10)

I'll confess to being fairly ignorant in regards to what The Reader was about prior to viewing it. All I really knew was that a very young boy does nasty, nasty things with a much older woman. Seriously. That's all I knew. Why? Because that's the sort of thing that people remember a movie by, so that's the way it was described to me (thanks, Andrew). While this is certainly true, there is a lot more to this movie in terms of plot.

The Reader functions by darting back and forth between various years in the past and 1995. After beginning in 1995 by seeing mudnane moments in the life of adult Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), we flash back to 1958, where Berg is 15 years old and played adeptly by David Kross. (It should be noted that David Kross has much more hair than David Cross does, and that he is significantly less funny. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.) On his way home from school, Berg is stricken with illness (scarlet fever, as it turns out) and is helped out by a woman in her thirties who stumbles upon him. The woman (Hanna Schmitz as played by Kate Winslet) helps nurse Michael back to health and he returns back home to his family.

Michael fondly remembers Hanna, though, and upon recovering his health three months later, he returns to thank her. His "thank you" turns into a torrid affair between the two, and Hanna becomes Michael's first lover despite being twice his age. Winslet wisely makes sure that we see Hanna as strange and a little bit harsh. She has a bit of a temper, maintains strict rules about most things, and often asks Michael to read to her from his school books if he wants to have sex with her again. The two grow to really care about each other, but one day Hanna disappears from Michael's life, perhaps out of guilt, or perhaps to spare Michael the inevitable end to what they were doing. He doesn't see her again until eight years later, when she is on trial for terrible crimes she committed earlier in life as a guard at Auschwitz.

From here on out, the movie focuses on Hanna's trial, her attempts to deal with what has happened, and Michael's attempts as a young man to sort things out for himself. It's obvious to us that Hanna has done some awful things, and that by comparison of her negligence at Auschwitz, her relations with Michael are a secondary offense. It can also be seen that Hanna has a lack of real world understanding and education that wasn't fully revealed to us at the outset. Looking back, though, Winslet's performance subtly hints at it. It makes sense for a woman like Hanna to be prone to giving in to impulses, and it makes sense that she has repressed her wrongdoings until she is brought face-to-face with them.

This is all difficult for Michael, as well. While it's easy to look at Michael and Hanna's relationship as dirty and wrong, Michael doesn't see it that way at all. He never did, and you can tell that he never will. In some way, he loved Hanna. She was the first female he ever felt anything for and who had ever felt anything for him. This makes it extremely hard for him to know how he's supposed to feel as he learns of her past. A scene near the film's conclusion between adult Michael and a holocaust survivor's daughter brings front and center Michael's conflicted feelings, even all these years later.

The Reader is certainly worth seeing, but it isn't as good as Oscar built it up to be. It's solid, well made, and well acted, but it doesn't represent anything earth shattering. What we have here is an intelligently crafted drama built around a peculiar relationship and set against a historical backdrop. I guess what I'm trying to say is, The Reader is good, but it doesn't by any means transcend good into great.

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