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‘The Reader’ is Hard to Love

Kate Winslet bares her soul and nabs an Oscar nomination with a role hard to garner sympathy

Posted: January 30, 2009 3:38 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2009 4:20 p.m.

Kate Winslet, right, has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a Nazi concentration camp guard in "The Reader." The film also stars David Kross as her teenage lover, Michael.

 
As in 2002's "The Hours," director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare's last pairing, "The Reader" has the flawless production values and sheen of prestige that make it easy to admire, yet an emotional detachment that makes it difficult to embrace fully.

Thankfully, Kate Winslet bares not just her body but her soul with a performance that pierces the genteel polish of this high-minded awards-season drama.

As the central figure in this adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel, Winslet is in the nearly impossible position of trying to make us feel sympathy for a former Nazi concentration camp guard - but, being an actress of great range and depth, she very nearly pulls off that feat completely.

What holds her and the film back from greatness is the oversimplification of imagery and symbolism that emerges as "The Reader" progresses, as it morphs from an invigorating love story to a rather conventional courtroom drama.

Hare has tweaked the book's linear narrative, jumping around in time through the recollections of love-struck Michael Berg (played beautifully as a teen by David Kross and more somberly as an adult by Ralph Fiennes).

As a stoic, divorced lawyer in the 1990s, Michael reflects on the affair he had in post-World War II Germany with the austere Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), when he was just an innocent 15-year-old and she was a tram worker some 20 years his senior. Hanna shows kindness toward Michael when he becomes ill as a passenger; after recovering from scarlet fever, he returns to thank her, and the two find an unexpected physical connection.

There's a gauzy warmth and softness to these memories - even a vision as mundane as the peek Michael sneaks of Hanna pulling on her dull, beige stockings - thanks to the always gorgeous work of veteran cinematographers Chris Menges and Roger Deakins.

But there's also a palpable giddiness to the way they discover each other, to the way their unlikely affair blossoms, with Michael reading the classics of Homer and Chekhov to Hanna before their afternoon romps in her small, dingy apartment.

Michael matures from a gawky, insecure schoolboy to a confident, charismatic young man, and Kross - who holds his own with acting heavyweight Winslet in every scene - makes the transformation a joy to watch.

Hanna, meanwhile, is stern but doting, and as she opens herself up to Michael, she reveals a vulnerability and an innocence of her own. Whatever lightness is left in her personality, Michael brings it out - until the day she packs up her belongings and disappears.

As a law student eight years later, Michael is stunned to learn the true nature of his first love's past when he conveniently stumbles upon her trial for Nazi war crimes. The look on his face when he hears her name in the courtroom - hears the voice that shaped his youth - is one of the rare pure expressions of emotional honesty in "The Reader."

Then again, we've been warned that such a twist would come: Back when he was still a schoolboy, Michael had a literature teacher who lectured about the importance of secrecy in developing a character, a rather clunky and literal metaphor as applied here.

But then "The Reader" applies another twist, a deeper secret that Hanna holds even closer. It's one that inspires even greater shame within her but one that probably won't be too difficult for the audience to discover - though they're expected to find it significant nonetheless.

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