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The Reader

Kate Winslet in The Reader

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

STEPHEN Daldry’s openly provocative adaptation of the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink is the type of film that has Oscar and numerous other awards written all over it.

It boasts brave, bold performances, a difficult subject matter (illiteracy, illicit love, the Holocaust) and a massive ethical dilemma underpinning it. And yet for those very reasons, The Reader is a flawed film that sometimes feels like it’s flaunting its award credentials a little too brazenly for its own good.

Morally, too, the film invites some difficult choices. Should we, the viewers, sympathise with a character who begins by seducing a minor and is then found to be complicit in the Holocaust?

And – on a slightly less worthy note – do Kate Winslet and young German co-star David Kross need to spend almost the entire first half of the movie naked? It’s a brave piece of role selection from Winslet anyway – so we don’t need to have it underlined by continually seeing her breasts (and more besides!).

In post Second World War Germany, 15-year old Michael (David Kross) is taken ill in the street and rescued by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a woman twice his age. They subsequently embark on a passionate affair, during which Michael reads to her from the books he is studying. Then Hanna disappears…

A few years later, while studying to become a lawyer, Michael attends the German war trials and is shocked to find Hanna among a group of women on trial for their role in the Holocaust. Struggling with his own sense of despair, disgust and shame, he is then presented with an ethical dilemma that places Hanna’s fate in his hands.

Still more years later, a middle-aged Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) attempts to put the events of his youth into perspective, while building a relationship with his estranged daughter.

On the plus side, Daldry’s film deserves credit for adopting an adult and extremely intelligent approach to its subject matter, thereby providing the more discerning viewer with plenty to really sink their teeth into.

The Holocaust trial sequence, in particular, is engrossing as are some of the early scenes between Michael and Hanna as they open up to each other.

The performances, too, are impeccable with Winslet fully worthy of the Oscar buzz surrounding her, and Kross coping well with the challenging material – especially when exploring the emotional complexity of the decision he is ultimately faced with.

But Daldry’s film ultimately leaves you feeling exhausted, drained and really uncomfortable – particularly in the way that it invites you to sympathise with the unforgivable.

The sombre worthiness of proceedings also becomes a little too overbearing, even though David Hare’s screenplay is careful never to feel like it’s manipulating your emotions.

Indeed, far from becoming that involved with the characters, you may well feel extremely distanced from them come the conclusion. So, as notable as certain aspects of The Reader are, therefore, it’s a difficult film to truly admire or even wholeheartedly recommend given its relationship to one of the darkest chapters in mankind’s history.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 2hrs 3mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 25, 2009