Directed by Stephen Daldry
Screenplay by David Hare, from the novel by Bernhard Schlink
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, David Kross, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz
It’s late 1950’s, West Germany. A 16 year-old boy (David Kross) meets and has an affair with a secretive, and standoffish, older woman (Kate Winslet). Amongst the things they do together, besides having sex, is the woman enjoys being read to. Doesn’t matter what she’s read, only that she’s read to. After a time, the woman abruptly moves away and the affair ends. Later, when the boy is in law school (still played by David Kross), he attends the trial of some suspected Nazi war criminals, one of whom turns out to be the woman he had the affair with. Though it is clear the woman does not know how to read, and therefore could not have been the ringleader she was made out to be, she refuses to exculpate herself and is jailed. Later still, the now-grown man (Ralph Fiennes) reconnects with the woman as a pen-pal, eventually meeting her in person again when she is on the verge of release from prison as an elderly woman.
How was it?
It’s rare for a mainstream movie, positioned as a big year-end awards release, to open with casual, full-frontal female nudity. Rarer still is the movie that goes almost directly from that to a fairly graphic scene of a main character vomiting in an alley.
Obviously, that rare movie is The Reader.
Opening the movie so graphically almost seems a warning from the filmmakers that something intense will follow. That we should prepare ourselves for something we may not want to see. That if we start things this way, with the nudity and vomiting, you can only imagine what is to come. And yet—
And yet, despite the Nazi themes, the movie is hardly sensational. Rather, it’s tasteful and almost painfully conventional. Yes, there is nudity to follow – this is a Kate Winslet joint after all, back from when she was taking her clothes off onscreen on the regular, but on the whole her body is not used in a prurient way, even in the sexual scenes. In fact, there is nothing sexy about the sex, or about Winslet in the film, and it’s almost nudity as anti-nudity.
And it’s not just the nudity that ultimately feels non-confrontational – the whole of the movie feels that way. Ultimately The Reader is a story about national guilt and complicity in bad acts. Specifically, it questions the extent to which people are culpable for atrocities they did not participate in. And how we often struggle with the notion of holding people we know and love responsible for the things they’ve done. But in pursuing this subject the movie is avoidant to a fault, so much so that while it asks this question, it is not insistent on getting an answer. Nor does it engage with even the most basic issue it presents: an affair between a 16 year-old boy and a nearly-40 year-old woman.
In reality, the most daring thing about this film is the opening scenes, followed by 90ish minutes of tasteful hooey.
In all fairness, while the film wants to be deeper than it’s willing to be, it is not at all terrible, and does many things to be commended. First and foremost The Reader is not an obvious film. Too often movies spoon feed an audience it’s plot-points or agenda. The Reader, though, does not bother with any of that. Instead, it plops you down in the story and lets you figure it out as you go along. In this way, by forcing you to feel your way through it, the movie engages. The story might not deserve that engagement, because it’s so avoidant, but it gets it anyway.
For me, the weakest stretch of the film was the final third, which was an unfocused letdown, anchored by Ralph Fiennes playing so frustratingly ho-hum and ultimately the virtue of the film – lack of obviousness – proved its biggest weakness, because by the time it all came to an end I wasn’t certain what point it was trying to make. Or cared.
Better Than Best?
Best Picture 2008 was Slumdog Millionaire, the little film that could. Pulled from the brink of being released straight-to-video by a studio thinking it would lose money, Slumdog Millionaire instead won a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Song and Score. It was quite the triumph and its success was in keeping with the underdog narrative of that film.
That said, if I’m honest, while Slumdog Millionaire is a good movie, it’s probably not the best of 2008. At the time I was happy it won, because the film is good and I like Danny Boyle, but since then it’s slipped a bit for me. On the other hand, In Bruges has grown on me and it’s the 2008 film I’ve re-watched it most. Only, every time we’ve gotten a new Martin McDonough film since then – he directed In Bruges – and they’ve slowly regressed in quality, I’m forced to wonder if In Bruges was just an aberration in his filmography, or if it’s not as good as I think it is.
In a non-obvious way, I think it’s clear that The Reader, while being a not-terrible movie, was not Better Than Best.
Winslet as Best Actress?
After five previous nominations between Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, Kate Winslet finally won Best Actress for her role as the older woman here in The Reader. Her competition that year was Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Angelina Jolie for Changeling, Melissa Leo for Frozen River, and Meryl Streep for Doubt. Of them all I’ve only actually seen Doubt, though it’s been a few years. Still, I recall Streep being as good as she always is in it – actually, the four leads in Doubt were all good. Even so, if Kate Winslet winning Best Actress for what is essentially a supporting part says anything, it’s that 2008 was clearly a weak year for women in movies.
And to be clear, Winslet’s turn in The Reader is a supporting part. While she is fairly present in the first third of the film, and to some extent in the second third, she’s basically missing from the final third. And at no time is the story ever her’s – she is always a participant in somebody else’s narrative, never her own.
And not only did Winslet win for what is essentially a supporting part, she won for the weaker of her two performances that year. Her other 2008 film was Revolutionary Road, with Leonardo Dicaprio, directed by Winslet’s then-husband, Sam Mendes. In that film she had a much more difficult role to pull off – domestic unhappiness – without turning shrill or into a caricature. At the Golden Globes that turns won her Best Actress, while The Reader won her Supporting Actress. Frankly, it’s baffling why her supporting turn in The Reader was promoted into the lead over her work in Revolutionary Road. It seems arbitrary and unexplainable. But, promoted it was and, thanks to it being a weak year for women, Winslet got the valedictory/apology Oscar actors sometimes get for their body of work and for being overlooked for their truly iconic work elsewhere, a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
That all said, Winslet does good work in the movie. She gets to play big at times, as when she and the boy quarrel. She gets to play subtle, as when she is unexpectedly given a promotion at work she did not ask for – that look on her face when she realizes she can’t take the job for fear of being exposed as illiterate is devastating. She gets to play distant, as when she’s clearly hiding something about herself from the boy and doing her best to deflect him. And she gets to play nude – it’s a Kate Winslet movie of a certain vintage, so of course she’ll be nude.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 And unnecessary.
 I loathe Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
 I do have a used copy of Rachel Getting Married that I’ll get around to eventually.
 Three obvious other examples are Al Pacino being twice denied an Oscar for Michael Corleone, only to win for Scent of a Woman; Paul Newman being denied for Cool Hand Luke while winning for The Color of Money; and Henry Fonda being denied for Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath while winning for On Golden Pond.