Friday, 12 November 2010

Flashback: The Reader

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?


Anonymous said...

Hey Andrew,

I must say I had a much higher expectation for the reader and was ultimately a little disappointed with the whole thing. I mean don't get me wrong, I liked the movie well enough but it felt like something was missing, like perhaps the translation from book to film got all jumbled up somehow and in the rush to get the move together some essential character bits were left, well, out. I totally don't think this is a holocaust film at all and that was a very inappropriate way to describe the film. And I agree with you that The Reader is definitely a worthy screener, you have to watch it for some many reasons from Winslet to Daldry, to the fact it is a paced and beautifully photographed film. I don't think it comes anywhere near The Hours (maybe because that is probably one of my most favorite films, one I've seen a dozen or more times and often have playing while I'm writing) but stands on its own two legs nevertheless.

A thoughtful and engaging review. Thanks and please drop by and see me some time.

Nicholas Prigge said...

It's funny. I've always described this movie to people as being the Holocaust movie I'd always wanted to see except then I pull up my review of it 2 years ago and see I was hitting on the same points you are. It's not really a Holocaust movie. It's a movie, I think, about two people across the chasm of time and age and, yes, the Holocaust who still have this intimate connection. I guess we as a society just like putting labels on things. They'd never pitch this as a movie about a younger guy and older woman reading to each other.

Either way, I love "The Reader" so much.

Jose said...

I love this movie.
I think people who think it's a holocaust movie pretty much prove the author's point right, which is how we judge others based on surface impressions.
I love that scene where Hanna goes to the trial in a dark suit, in the book it's described as the best outfit she has, yet people in the crowds who had decided they hated her before they heard her, see it as a Nazi uniform.
I think that pretty much sums up how the poor movie was seen by people. Those who decided it was being rewarded just because it was about the war (we don't see a single plane or bullet in the damn thing) and the worst kind of people, those who decided Hanna Schmidt was guilty of putting Batman in a concentration camp.
I haven't seen it in a while either, since you aren't watching the DVD send it to me :P

Anonymous said...

I did not care for it. The gratuitous nudity aside, I found the whole idea of her being unable to defend herself because of her inability to read a little silly. That, and the fact that none of the characters seemed to make decisions based on the way the real world works.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

rory i'm not sure if daldry can top the hours. i think it's generally flawless. i've never read the reader which perhaps has an influence on me not having a problem with it structurally.

nicholas glad you're a fan. i never think of this movie in the context of hana as much as michael though. screen time be damned, i'll always think of kate as a supporting player here.

jose god, it sucks. i remember the uproar when it was nominated (which amused me because i predicted it would beat out TDK). people were already ready to hate on it because of its "prestige" background and weinstein, which is unfortunate.

james i don't think it was hana not being able to defend herself as much her not wanting to. she went around with a huge amount of pride and she was just not prepared to let anyone get the upper-hand, even if she went to jail for it.

Jose said...

I actually think it was a great book adaptation. Everything in the book is so internalized that I wondered how the hell they'd make a movie out of it.
The part where we learn Hanna's secret is particularly well executed. Daldry is a master at making great movies out of un-filmable books.