Monday, February 16, 2009

Oscar Nominees: The Reader

Note: In advance of this year’s Oscar ceremony, I am posting my annual reflections (I’ll not call them reviews) of each of the best picture nominees…. I begin with The Reader. Enjoy (or don’t).

Kate Winslet has been asked to do a lot throughout her magnificent career. She has played highly costumed Miramax types, alcoholic free-spirits, sexual masochists, sexually-repressed masochists, ugly women, and ugly flat-chested women (albeit less than credibly). She has twice pretended to be intrigued by Leonardo DiCaprio and once by an overacting Geoffrey Rush. More recently, she played, of all things, a failed actress.

Illiterate Nazi pedophile sex kitten with a heart of gold and a passion for literature? She nails it, of course. Such is the conundrum for The Reader, a film whose intriguing, ethereal opening salvos deteriorate into an emotional and ethical muddle.

The film mostly takes place during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the civilized world was trying to wrap its head around the atrocities associated with the Holocaust. Germany, for its part, held a series of trials to hold accountable those responsible for the most egregious offenses against humanity. This period produced several settled questions, not least of which whether one could be exonerated for murder simply by following orders.

The answer is “no”, by the way. Alas, The Reader is content to re-open this particular vestibule of worms, Using Winslet’s brilliant performance as a can opener.

The film is seen through the eyes of Michael, first seen as a fifteen year old adolescent (played by David Kross, who is clearly post-adolescent). He becomes ill on the street, and an older lady, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) cares for him outside of his flat. Over time, he finds reasons to return to her flat, and over time, she finds ways to get him to read to her.

You can look at the film’s rating to guess at her methodology. But she has an insatiable desire to hear young Michael read books, he has an insatiable desire for her body, and the cinematographer has an insatiable desire for both of them. Beneath their lust, however, is a certain tenderness and sweetness. This is the first problem, but more on that later.

Fast forward to Michael in law school. His professor, whose character exists solely to articulate Michael’s philosophical angst, takes his small class on a field trip to watch the trial of former Nazi guards who watched as a building containing hundreds of Jews burnt to the ground. One of the guards in question? One Hanna Schmitz.

***SPOILER ALERT***

Of course, all the women in question are guilty. The film introduces the two remaining Jewish survivors (I think… the film is foggy on the question of whether they were in the building) as witnesses in the trial. It is revealed (to the very unobservant audience member) that Hanna cannot read, and so we understand her attraction to Michael. Through a plot contrivance, Hanna’s illiteracy also allows the other women to make her a scapegoat.

Michael, knowing her affliction, remains silent because the movie requires him to, which sets up a series of scenes where he is made to watch as Hanna is sent to prison for life. Get it? It’s a parallel. He is just as evil as she is. That’s the second problem.

Throughout the process, Winslet’s Hanna is able to generate sympathy. She bathes and cares for Michael in their early encounters. She looks genuinely put upon and afraid in front of her inquisitors during the trial. Her peculiar behavior throughout leaves open the possibility that she is mentally disabled. After all, maybe she was incapable of understanding the difference between good and evil, and why else would she be interested in teenage boys?

This is thrown out the window when, in an emotional montage, we see her using a very elaborate methodology to learn to read. People who teach themselves to read are, by definition, highly intelligent.

But The Reader wants us to get weepy because this poor woman is finally able to comprehend great literary works. Because this particular woman is Kate Winslet, who we’ve seen while naked, but not while letting hundreds of people die, this represents some sort of victory.

***END SPOILER ALERT***

This, I think, is the film’s fatal flaw. We see Kate Winslet having sex, looking sad, being resentful, and all of the other things that make Kate Winslet great. We never see her in a Nazi uniform. We see nothing of her escorting human beings to their deaths, or perhaps killing one herself. Further, given that the actor playing young Michael is clearly over 18 (otherwise the film would be illegal), neither do we see her for the sexual predator she is.

In lieu of any of this frivolity, we get a cutting performance from Lena Olin, who decades later is unwilling to provide any salve of forgiveness for Hanna’s crimes. She is portrayed as a prototypical New York Jewess, surrounded by one of those Kubrickian post-modern Manhattan apartments Hollywood usually reserves for gangsters and Wall Street hustlers. Olin’s performance is erudite, surgical and brilliant, but she didn’t get an Oscar nomination, now, did she?

In fact, her justified antipathy is eschewed in favor of a more conventional denouement, wherein Ralph Fiennes (Michael all grown up) brings his daughter to the grave of Hanna Schmitz. Sort of a dark matter version of the end of Schindler’s List, I suppose.

Is the film’s Anti-Semitism accidental? Perhaps. But, at best, we are left with a hyper-literal film extolling the values of reading. That the film was produced by the Weinstein brothers is inexplicable. That it is nominated for best picture is shameful.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Adam Omelianchuk said...

The fact that his movie was nominated for Best Picture and not WALL-E is reason enough to boycott the Oscars.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Kevin Sawyer said...

Yeah, I haven't read anyone who is excited about this nomination. This is the worst Best Picture nominee I have seen since Gladiator.

My guess is that the Dark Knight or Wall-E would have slid into this slot, but that Gran Torino scrubbed votes from both films.

Couple that with the Academy's WW2 obsession, and you get a very unworthy nominee.

I should also point out the Ralph Fiennes is terrible in this movie. Apparently, he knows a thankless role when he sees it.

11:08 PM  

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