Derek Winnert

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This article was written on 20 Sep 2013, and is filled under Reviews.

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The Reader – Film Review

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‘It doesn’t matter what I feel. The dead are still dead.’

Director Stephen Daldry’s haunting 2008 film of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel Der Vorleser is, as intended, an uncomfortable and disturbing experience. It focuses on a 15-year-old Berlin schoolboy who has a passionate affair in the mid-50s with a much older woman – an illiterate tram conductor.

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In gaps between bonking, she gets him to read to her from classics of world literature. He’s heartbroken when she vanishes after their summer of loving, but, as a law student, he encounters her again eight years later when she’s a defendant in a war crimes trial. The story’s really all about the man, and he’s brilliantly played by David Kross in early years and also by Ralph Fiennes as his older version from the 70s to the 90s, both men intense, tortured and smouldering.

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Nevertheless, it was Kate Winslet who won an Oscar for her brisk, competent and highly professional performance – why didn’t the amazing Melissa Leo win for Frozen River? – and the two men weren’t even nominated. Well, life’s unfair!

On a practical level, the movie has a couple of problems with English actors playing Germans with fake ‘German’ accents and with the hiccups of the time-scale jumps first by a decade, then later two decades, as Winslet ages in none-too-convincing old-lady makeup and Kross turns into the familiar features of Fiennes. These time shifts work well in novels but in movies they’re a nuisance.

Then there’s the whole idea of what the film’s about. Its morality is unclear: is Winslet’s character of Hannah Schmitz a Nazi mass murderer or not? If she is, why are we supposed to sympathise with her? What’s the reading thing supposed to be? Is the idea that reading redeems the world?

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Though small scale, this haunting, literate and thought-provoking film’s very posh, classy and beautifully crafted. There’s an extremely handsome period production (production designer Brigitte Broch and supervising art director Christian M Goldbeck)  and distinguished cinematography (Chris Menges, Roger Deakins) , lifting it comfortably above the level of the TV movie it could have become. Although the annoyingly insistent music (Nico Muhly) is a big downside. But David Hare handles the difficult task of providing the screenplay discreetly and smoothly.

The film had five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but won only one for Winslet. Lena Olin is marvellous at the end as Jewish survivor Rose Mather. It took more than $100million at the box office, sensational business for a movie as serious as this.

(C) Derek Winnert derekwinnert.com

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