January 8, 2009

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The Reader (R)
Kate Winslet is a young boy’s first love and later becomes his first heartbreak in The Reader, another one of these Oscar-hopeful movies that feels more like a good read than a great movie.

A 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) meets a 30something Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) in 1950s West Germany. Despite their difference in age, they fall quickly into a love affair. They spend the days after Michael gets out of school and Hanna gets off work together in her apartment — they make love and then he reads to her from the classics.

Eventually, the outside world seems to pull at them — Michael’s friends want to see more of him and a girl his own age catches his eye. He and Hanna become uneasy with each other, but he still loves her and is heartbroken when she one day vanishes.

It’s the mid-1960s when he sees her again. He’s a law student, watching the trial of women accused of causing the deaths of the Jewish women they were guarding back in the 1940s when the women were S.S. prison guards. He is shocked and horrified when he hears Hanna’s voice coming from the witness stand. Eventually, she is accused of being the guard who let some 300 women die during a forced march when the church in which they were locked for the night caught on fire.

Woven throughout these scenes are bits of the story of the adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes), who is still grappling with his feelings for Hanna and his revulsion with what she did.

The movie is told through the eyes of Michael, but it’s Winslet’s performance that makes the movie engrossing. Everything from the affair to the wrinkle make-up we see her wearing at the end could have been ridiculous but she makes it work. She doesn’t completely let us hate or sympathize with her character. She is a fascinating character to watch, one whose reactions help pull you through some of the bloodless and less interesting diversions into Michael’s life that the movie takes, it seems, because it was in the book, not because we particularly care at that point. While Kross and Fiennes do a serviceable job of playing the different stages of Michael, they don’t quite crawl inside the character the way Winslet does.

The Reader doesn’t thrust you in to the story in the cinematic way that, say, Doubt or Slumdog Millionaire does (two other movies sharing the awards limelight this year) but it does hold your interest in a very literary, novel-like way. B-

Rated R for some scenes of sexuality and nudity. Directed by Stephen Daldry and written by David Hare (from the book by Bernhard Schlink), The Reader is two hours and two minutes long and is distributed by the Weinstein Company.