Harvey Weinstein and the ghosts of producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella are hoping everyone this holiday season will want to see The Reader’s love story about former S.S. guard Hannah Shmitz (Kate Winslet) and the teenage boy she sexually initiates in the late 1950s and the cloud of remorse it casts over his adult life (the adult being played by Ralph Fiennes). It should have been a comedy like Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, shaking up the calcified presumptions of quasi-Holocaust dramas. But it’s also Oscar season and historically based, award-baiting mawkishness is no laughing matter.
The Weinstein-Pollack-Minghella game plan is exposed. The Reader glazes its familiar sexual-awakening story with highbrow affectations. Winslet’s Hannah hides from her past by enlisting a teenager to read the classics to her between hookups. As an aging war-crimes inmate, she receives audio recordings of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Homer’s Odyssey and other doorstops from her remorseful, weak-willed, now adult former lover. These are literary distractions from the film’s basic intellectual schmaltz about German guilt. That’s supposedly how you make an Important Motion Picture.
The Reader’s single point of interest is director Stephen Daldry’s continued reticence about sexual identity. Young Michael (played by David Kross, a Heath Ledger-ish juvenile) suggests the same gender confusion as the boys in Daldry’s Billy Elliot and The Hours. Daldry contrasts Kross’ nubile body to Winslet’s drawn breasts, her downy face to his fuzzy chest. The bathing scene where Hannah scrubs Michael before their reading session has so many covert, emasculating insinuations, it drags cinema back to the stodginess before Last Tango in Paris and Room at the Top.
Daldry still can’t admit to sensuality, yet he has the audacity to pretend a philosophical allegory. As a law student, Michael’s struggle with national and personal guilt poses a complex response to issues the film has already sentimentalized. All that reading teaches him nothing about justice. By the time The Reader lays on Jewish guilt (“Not that illiteracy is a very Jewish problem,” says Lena Olin as a wealthy Park Avenue Holocaust survivor) the calculation of sex, morbidity and piety becomes risible if not offensive.
Directed by Stephen Daldry, Running Time: 123 min.
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