I was up early in the morning a few days ago and The Reader was on, I tuned in at that specific scene where Hana and Michael are in the bedroom. Though, in all honesty they do spend half their time there, but I digress. It’s Michael’s birthday and he’s annoyed that Hana doesn’t even seem interested. “You looking for a fight kid?” No, I didn’t get some massive epiphany about how this scene was some sort of metaphor for the general reaction to The Reader back in 2008, and its eventual Oscar glory. It’s even less a summation of the gravity of the film, but watching it – yes, I did end up watching the entire thing from there – I wondered why The Reader is called a pretentious Holocaust flick. Your guess is as good as mine to whether or not it’s pretentious, but Holocaust? That seems like a stretch. I saw The Reader for the first time back in 2008 the same day that I saw Revolutionary Road which culminated in a one-two punch of complete depression. I liked them both, and I’ve seen the latter countless times even if it’s not the easiest film to sit through but for some reason I haven’t seen The Reader since. It’s odd, I bought the DVD – I still have it, but I’ve never watched it. It’s not meant to be a slight to the film, because it still is as good as I thought it was – better even, but I’m not sure what it was that stopped me from seeing it again.
What struck me most upon rewatching it was how quickly the first act goes. It’s the most generic portion of the film, but it also seems in many ways to be the strongest. I’m a big fan of Ralph Fiennes but he’s not as essential to the film’s plot as the poster would have you believe and even Kate who appears in the past and present is not as irreplaceable to the narrative. Sure, she gives the strongest performance but it’s up to David Kross as young Michael to ensure that first half (and more) of The Reader. I’ve gleaned from IMDB that he has a number of upcoming projects and his performance here ranks among my favourites of 08 even if he was virtually ignored. What I appreciate most about the narrative is its slowness to cast judgement on either Hana or Michael. Depending on who you speak to, both of them are being morally reprehensible – and I’m not talking about the court case in the middle of the film. The thing is, I could care less about the legality of their affair and Daldry and Hare manage to make it work, romantic even. It’s an odd partnership but it really is brilliant watching Kross and Winslet together.
It seems unfair that somewhere along the line The Reader is given the moniker of “holocaust film”, anyone who leaves the film with the trial in the middle as the most significant plot point doesn’t seem like someone who paid keen attention to it. True, the trial is an important arc and that potential dissonance that occurs when considering whether or not Hana should be guilty so many years after the fact is probably the point – but the point of the film is more than just that. Calling it a character study isn’t a copout – that’s the bare essentials of what it’s about really. Stephen Daldry is lucky to have such a successful streak, Oscar-wise, but he’s even more lucky to have directed three successful films each of which is starkly different from the others. True, The Reader doesn’t resonate as much as The Hours or Billy Elliot but I still say it’s one well worth watching.
Where do you stand on The Reader?