As a general rule, the trend these last fifteen years in the genre of the adult drama has been towards films with run-times increasingly longer, plots more convoluted, and the characters and their relationships simpler to the point of cliche. This, of course, is the reverse recipe for good storytelling. The plot should be simple, the pace quick, and the characters and their relationships complicated. These long, messy plots are supposed to act as a substitute for intelligence, but the result is almost always boredom borne of confusion and so today the adult drama is all but dead at the box office.
Recently, a new ingredient's been added to the effort of fooling us into believing that what we're watching is intelligent, and that's The Immoral - with the normalization of sex with young children leading the charge. "Notes on a Scandal
" and "Towelhead
" [links to my review] actually portray a physical intimacy with children as liberating, while "The Woodsman
," "Little Children
," and "L.I.E.
" offer up those who molest our children as alternately sympathetic, wise and the protector. [some spoilers coming]
" is so desperate to be perceived as intelligent that it creates an entirely new recipe: the sympathetic Nazi child molester and former S.S. concentration camp guard responsible for the mass murder of 300 Jews who with the help of the young boy she once raped triumphs over her reading disability.
The reason you keep thinking Hollywood's finally hit bottom is because you forget how well they dig.
Set in post-WWII Germany, "The Reader" wastes no time in getting to "it." Within twenty-minutes, thirty-six year old Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet
) has seduced fifteen year-old Michael, played by eighteen year-old David Kross
, into her bed. Their steamy sexual affair, broken up only by his reading novels to her, will last the summer of 1958 and affect Michael in ways he can't imagine for the rest of his life.
She's a quiet and moody ticket puncher on the local trolley car and he's a bright, ambitious student from a well to do family. Even without the age difference, this would be a difficult relationship to sustain and soon she moves on, leaving him devastated. When he sees her again nearly ten years later he's a law student and she's on trial for war crimes. But she's also his first love and even later in his life as an adult with a career and grown daughter, Michael (played by Ralph Fiennes
) can't cut his emotional ties to her completely.
With a mix of the Holocaust, a reading disability, artistically lit full frontal nudity, illicit romance, a European setting and a little courtroom drama, the Academy just couldn't help themselves from nominating this for a Best Picture Oscar, which only serves to further prove that The Oscar Contender has become a genre all its own, because "The Reader" simply isn't a very good film.
Thanks largely to David Kross' sympathetic performance as young Michael, the first hour is the most compelling. Michael's truly in love with Hanna, and you feel for him because you're watching a film produced by a Weinstein Company in desperate need of Oscar-cred, so you know the poor kid's in for some real heartbreak. And throughout the story the only effective moments will come when the perspective is on Michael. Watching him affected by what's become of his first love creates the film's few tender moments.
Unfortunately, most of the narrative involves Hanna and so we find ourselves stuck with a protagonist who seduces a child (perversely, her nickname for him is "Kid"), breaks his heart, and then confesses to mass murder. Which might be okay if "The Reader" was a tale of redemption, but it's not, it's the tale of a monster of a human being triumphing over illiteracy. Morality aside, the absurdity of this approach doesn't allow you to lose yourself in the story. Again and again, the absurdity breaks the spell.
The Academy seems determined to give Winslet a Best Actress Oscar this year and they do deserve credit for not nominating her for a truly awful performance in "Revolutionary Road
," and she is quite good as Hanna, though her old age make up is distracting and you do catch her acting more than once. At times all that nudity feels calculated, as in: "See what a brave actress
female actor I am, Academy?"
There are other story flaws, as well. A subplot involving Michael and his estranged daughter never makes sense or fits well into the overall narrative, and when the film ends on a final grace note involving this under-developed relationship, you can only shake your head at the choice as the credits roll. But this is the least of the film's choices that has you scratching your head as the credits roll.
Give the filmmakers credit. Except for the use of intelligence and thoughtfulness, everything that could be done to make "The Reader" appear as though it were intelligent and thoughtful was.