Based on the award-winning novel, The Reader (Der Vorleser), by Bernhard Schlink, this film is all about pivotal decisions and secrets and shame. I had the idea it was a holocaust film and I have to say I was relieved to see that it only figured into the film in a small way. Of course, it looms large in the plot, but the story really isn't ABOUT that.
Ralph Fiennes plays Michael Berg all grown up in 1995-- a lawyer with a grown daughter. His actions reveal him to be a cold, distant, meticulous man as he bids farewell to the beautiful woman who shared his bed the night before and she remarks on how little she knows of him.
He is taken back into a memory as he stares out the window and suddenly he is 15 and it's 1958. Sick with the beginning stages of scarlet fever, young Michael (David Cross) vomits on his way home and it's Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) who cares for him and sees him home. Months later, when he's finally better Michael stops by with flowers to thank her. While it's probably innocent to this point, something happens on that visit that suggests they both want more and the next day, when he returns without reason, a torrid affair ensues--one that would last for only a summer but would impact the rest of their lives.
If nudity in films or affairs between 34 year old women and 15 year old boys makes you uncomfortable then this film may not be for you. There is a LOT of nudity and sex.
On the other hand, it's a real tribute to books. On each visit, Michael also reads to Hanna. This starts after their third meeting when they finally ask each other's names. It begins with Homer's Odyssey and I guess that's probably symbolic because it essentially begins Michael's journey into manhood. I have to say that while Hanna clearly seemed to be enjoying the sex, she seemed nearly as orgasmic listening to the stories--like she is a starving woman and this is her bread. As a person who is passionately in love with story in its manied forms, I have to admit there is something beautiful about that.
The pivotal moment in the film happens in 1966 when Michael is in law school and he encounters Hanna Schmitz again as a defendant in a landmark case against female guards who were part of the selection for Auschwitz. While her guilt is indisputable, Michael is privvy to information that might provide a lighter sentence and that is his great decision in the film.
There is a great moment in that scene when Hanna is questioned about her role in the selection and she explains the process. She's not hiding or denying the things she did. She explains it was her job. It's a bit horrifying to hear her calm, matter-of-fact rationales. When further pressed, she askes her inquisitor, "What would you have done?" And in some ways that is the question of the film. At every moment when we are heavy with judgement over someone else's failures... "what would you have done?" We'd like to think we'd have done things differently. We want to believe that about ourselves. But really what do MOST people do?
I remain undecided as to how I "feel" about this film. I feel as though I need to read the book or let it digest a bit more. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. Yet, it impacted me. I am never a fan of aging make-up, but I was so focused on the story that I didn't have time to mentally critique that aspect. I love Kate Winslet, but the story could work without her. It did, I guess. It was a successful novel first. I believe Winslet was the perfect woman for this role. She's deep and dark and sexy and sad. It works.
I was rushing to see as many Academy Award nominated films as I could before tonight's ceremony. I did alright; though, the true goal is to see the best picture films and most of them haven't made it to the screens in my town. I still haven't done my "picks" yet.
Here's a ballot you can print.