Admirers of the last collaboration between director Stephen Daldry and writer David Hare, The Hours (2002), should find much to please them in The Reader. Like their previous film, The Reader is heavy stuff. It has a nonlinear structure. And it’s haunting and deeply disturbing—perhaps even more so than The Hours. It is, in any case, clear why this material would appeal to the makers of The Hours. What is less clear is how much it will appeal to that film’s audience. The underpinnings of The Hours were very much in the “women’s picture” mode. The Hours could be—in many ways was—taken as an art-house soap opera. The Reader comes from a darker place altogether.
Stripped of its structural devices, the story follows the brief affair in 1958 between a 15-year-old German boy, Michael Berg (David Kross), and a 30-ish woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). That such a relationship is wrong isn’t actually addressed. It’s merely presented as something that happened, which will bother some viewers, but this isn’t the point of the story. When Hanna is nice to the boy one day—after finding him coming down with scarlet fever in the entryway to her building—Michael becomes interested in her. After he gets well, he goes to see her, ostensibly to thank her, but something more develops. It’s immediately clear what Michael gets out of this arrangement—which he views with the romanticism of youth—but Hanna is harder to understand, except that she becomes fixated on having him read to her. In fact, the only real emotion she evidences—apart from her slight amusement at his devotion to her—comes from her responses to what he reads. This all comes crashing down when Hanna is promoted from streetcar conductor to a clerical job—at which point she disappears.
What might have become little more than a bittersweet memory becomes something else when Michael—a law student in a class observing a war-crimes trial—discovers that Hanna is among those on trial for having been concentration camp guards. Horrified by this revelation and ashamed that he ever knew, let alone, loved this woman, Michael struggles with his conscience as to whether or not to speak up and convey a crucial piece of information he’s figured out about Hanna—one that would in no way clear her, but would have an impact on her sentencing. Michael loses this battle with himself and keeps quiet—for reasons that aren’t all that different from why Hanna joined the SS, ran away from her promotion etc.—and that moment defines his life and binds him to Hanna rather than frees him.
The older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) is a successful, but detached man. His marriage has failed. He’s uncomfortable with his own daughter. In every respect, he’s damaged goods—but not, as has been suggested, because of his teenage relationship with an older woman. He’s damaged because he chose not to do the right thing in order to hide his own personal shame, and he lives with that guilt on a daily basis—trying to assuage it as best he can by reading books onto tape and sending them to the imprisoned Hanna. What this ultimately leads to is something best left to the film. That the final scene may remind the viewer just a bit of the encounter between the aged Julianne Moore character and the Claire Danes character in The Hours is probably deliberate—as is the fact that the scene here is actually more hopeful, even if it comes from a source of greater despair.
Beautifully made, splendidly acted—this is the Kate Winslet performance to see, not the one in the upcoming Revolutionary Road—and of greater substance than most movies that come our way, The Reader poses some very difficult questions. These are questions it forces the viewer to ask him or herself, which also means it’s a somewhat uncomfortable film. However, it’s also a film that’s smart enough to know that it doesn’t have the answers to these questions and so leaves the answers to the viewer. Demanding? Yes. But that’s also why it’s such a worthwhile accomplishment. Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity.