Review: Winslet shines in "The Reader"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The Reader" is an unexpected treasure. It is wise, serious and, as life often is, emotionally complicated. Germans separated from the Nazis by a single generation find it hard to understand there is no difference between their parents and themselves. In turn the parents struggle with the persecution of their neighbors, not quite sure why it was them and not themselves, often aware how easily the roles could have been reversed.

"The Reader" begins in 1958 Berlin as a young high school student Michael (David Kross) becomes ill on his way home and is helped by the much older Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). After months of recovery from scarlet fever, Michael seeks out Hanna to thank her with a bouquet of flowers. Though when Michael visits the lonely and quite severe -- if not unsympathetic -- Hanna, she makes a pass at him and they fall into a sexual and secretive affair.

Hanna loves being read to and soon requires Michael to read to her before they have sex. Her desire for Michael to read aloud is almost childlike and is, as Michael is well aware, greatly appreciated. Then suddenly the affair is over as Hanna is promoted at her job and abruptly leaves him without saying goodbye.

Eight years later Michael is a law student and his class is observing a Nazi war crime trial. He is stunned to see that Hanna is on trial for being an SS guard from Auschwitz. As Hanna's trial proceeds, Michael comes to understand Hanna, himself, and Germany, in a way no one else can.

Kate Winslet turned 33 this year, and it's clear she's put herself in a good position to grow old on screen; she is a complete actor who relies on her talent to attract audiences. She commands the screen like a Meryl Streep or Bette Davis, and it seems anything she does is a wonder. If she keeps on picking interesting roles like Hanna in "The Reader," she'll be with us a long time. Her performances are becoming more and more a yearly holiday present.

The film is from a book of the same name by Bernhard Schlink. And, yes, it is semi-autobiographical. Though what really stayed with me is what Schlink tried to do, which is to understand a love for someone who commits an unspeakable crime. In "The Reader" it is a woman in a sexual context, but what if it were a family member, a mother? What if to feed you she took a government job and was assigned to Auschwitz? What if she did this for no other reason than to survive? What would you do with the love of your mother when you found out her secret history years later?

As the law professor says during a private meeting with Michael, if after all we have went through we have not learned to speak out with the truth, we have learned nothing.

Finally, and sadly, the two main producers of the film, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, passed away last year. It says a lot about the type of men they were and the special careers they created to end it with "The Reader." It's a prime example of their work, and they'll be sorely missed.

Steve E. Turner is a freelance movie reviewer and filmmaker. Read more of his reviews at www.picassofish.blogspot.com.

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