The Reader flops around for it’s two hour running time like a chicken with its head cut off. Or like a fire hose on full blast without anyone to control where the flow of water should go. Or like Elle Driver in Kill Bill, in that trailer bathroom after Beatrix Kiddo plucked her other eye out. I haven’t read the book (written by Bernhard Schlink), so I can’t comment on quality of the adaptation by David Hare. But I can say that there was nothing more director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) could have done with such an aimless script.
The story follows Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes and David Kross), who’s life is inexplicably shattered when a three month love affair that took place when he was fifteen with a much older woman named Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) ends suddenly. She vanishes without a trace and he doesn’t see her again until he’s a law student, attending Nazi war crime tribunes (the setting is post-WWII Germany). At one particular trial, six women were being prosecuted, one being Hanna Schmitz. The story breaks into a million pieces at this point, none of which are really that interesting.
The story is told through extremely long flashbacks. Fiennes is confined to a few short scenes where he’s mostly just asked to look really sad. A wounded daughter is thrown in to ensure the audience knows how affected he was by his experience with Hanna, how he could never really be close to another person again. The flashback device is getting a little old (I blame Titanic for its rise in popularity), and The Reader didn’t use it particularly well either. The principal reason that defined the characters’ extraordinary actions (I can’t mention it here because it’s somewhat of a spoiler) is extremely weak, and doesn’t allow the audience to empathize with or understand the people onscreen. The standout here, obviously, is Winslet who shines brighter than all the rest. She will, of course, be nominated for an Oscar for this performance, and it is well deserved. However, it’s still a shame The Weinstein Company chose to back this movie as it’s Oscar contender of 2008 instead of John Hillcoat’s The Road.
Up through the war crime trials, the movie holds the audience’s attention, the plot all but resolves itself, and you’ll think it’s time to leave, but the movie keeps going for another hour. The film posits and interesting position that almost defends low-level SS guards that, if you pay attention, will probably jar you a little, or a lot, as you find yourself siding more with them than with the German justice system.
While The Reader isn’t spectacular, it has it’s moment and is certainly worth seeing over The Spirit, or Marley & Me.