Film Score: Nico Muhly Cinematography: Roger Deakins & Chris Menges
Stars: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross and Bruno Ganz
The Reader, and the subject is statutory rape. Put that way it sounds a lot more melodramatic than it is, but despite it’s lack of histrionics, this is a film that wraps its historical morality play in a far more serious question: should statutory rape protections be the same for boys as they are for girls? The answer the film provides is a resounding yes. We all know about the sexual double standard that exists in Western Civilization, if not the world, and statutory rape seems no different in that respect. While outraged at the thought of an older man taking advantage of an underage girl, there seems to be less of a concern about underage boys being taught the “facts of life” by an older woman. The attitude seems to be more of a nudge with the elbow and a “that a boy” wink than the horrified call to the police that usually accompanies a similar situation with the opposite sex. What The Reader does so deftly is to demonstrate the profoundly destructive nature of a sexual relationship on a 16-year old boy in a way that could not be clearer. The confusion of love and sex at an early age, while sometimes difficult to understand rationally, is so obvious in the visual medium of film that it should cause all of us to reexamine our own prejudices in this regard.
The film begins in the present, with lawyer Ralph Fiennes in the morning making breakfast for his lover. Everything is neat, orderly, so perfectly sterile and cold it’s as if he needs to impose all of the order and control he lacks in his emotional life upon his physical surroundings. Then she emerges from the bedroom naked and asks him if any woman stays long enough with him to find out what goes on in his head. After she leaves the scene shifts to Fiennes’ past, where he is played by David Kross. The young boy gets off the train, not looking too well, and vomits in front of the building where Kate Winslet lives. She hugs him and takes him home, and after a few months of confinement to his bed because of scarlet fever, he goes back to thank her. Later, when he has the courage, he goes back to her apartment and the two begin a sexual liaison that consumes Kross emotionally. One of the oddities of their relationship is that she has him read to her the books he is studying in school. The relationship is obviously not an equal one and when she is told she is getting a promotion at work--from a ticket taker on the city trains, to a desk in an office--she simply disappears from her apartment leaving Kross devastated. Years later, while Kross is in law school, the episode has clearly left him emotionally scarred in a way that affects all his relationships with women. But then, while his class is studying the trial of five women accused of war crimes, the film takes a turn for the surreal when Kross discovers Winslet is one of those women.
This is such a powerful film, and the performances are so real, that it seems almost criminal the film didn’t win an Oscar for best picture that year, losing out to the more stylized drama of Slumdog Millionaire. The one bright spot at the awards is that Kate Winslet won and Academy Award for best actress, one of her best performances ever. The emotional detachment she displays while playing the character is incredible. And the detachment she has for David Kross is mirrored by that for the Jewish concentration camp prisoners that she allows to burn alive in a church rather than let them escape. But both of these acts actually stem from her stunted intellectual growth that is a result of illiteracy. Not only does her inability to read cause her to leave town when she gets a promotion, but it explains her inhumanity to everyone, including Kross. And still, Winslet manages to wring pathos from the viewer at the same time, a brilliant feat for any actor. David Kross is also exceptional as the emotionally torn boy who tragically refuses the advances of a beautiful girl his own age because of his mistaken feelings for Winslet. And though his part is much smaller, Ralph Fiennes, delivers an terrific performance as well, especially when he reconnects with Winslet--in a way--later in life. Nevertheless, his emotional ruin at her hands when he was a boy remains with him, haunting him and refusing to providing him with anything resembling closure, a testament to the effect of the illegal act Winslet perpetrated, no less damaging than what she did to the Holocaust victims.
Director Stephen Daldry has filmed some incredibly searing portraits of young people dealing with the stresses usually reserved for adult life, and this film falls naturally into that category. The story comes from the novel by Bernhard Schlink, a typically brief and introspective work that is characteristic of modern German novelists. But David Hare also deserves major credit for working the material into a form that is so cinematically revelatory. While the novel allows the reader to see the incongruity between the main character’s thoughts and what has happened to him on an emotional level, the film must do that in a much more direct way, and it succeeds admirably. Daltry had two directors of photography, one imagines one for the historical sequences and the other for the modern, but whatever the division of labor they both do an masterful job as well. Also on hand in a small role as a law professor is one of Germany’s cinematic treasures, Bruno Ganz, as well as a host of young European actors who give full meaning to the term supporting actor. The piano-based score by Nico Muhly lacks anything melodic, but works well in the way it matches the seriousness of the story. The Reader is probably one of the best films to come out in the last thirty years, certainly better than many of the films that have won the best picture Oscar in that time period, and deserves to be mentioned along with the greatest films of all time. It gets my highest recommendation.