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Rated: 13+ · Critique · Arts · #1566851
Article published in an entertainment publication
A Review By Lisa Worsham

A Not So Typical Coming of Age Story

In The Reader a forbidden love affair between a teenager and a woman twice his age serves as a representation of the conflicting emotions of the Germans of WWII and the generation that followed. Near the middle of the film a law student of the post war generation articulates its angst by asking, “How could this have happened? How could you stand by and let this happen? And why didn’t you kill yourself?” There are no easy answers and The Reader doesn’t offer any. At most it asks the question that Hannah Schmidt (Kate Winslett) poses at her trial as a former SS guard, “What would you have done?”

The affair starts innocently. Thirty-seven-year-old Hannah helps fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) get home after he is violently ill in front of her apartment house. After spending several months in his own bed recovering from scarlet fever, he returns to thank her and ends up (eagerly) in hers.

But this coming of age story is anything but idyllic. Hannah controls Michael who responds with an almost dog like devotion. She is at times verbally and physically abusive and once tells the boy, “You don’t have the power to upset me. You don’t matter enough to upset me.” This is the only hint that the young Michael has of the “monster” he encounters eight years later when he unwittingly ends up attending her trial as part of his law school seminar course.

Hannah and five other women (all former SS guards) are on trial for allowing 300 Jewish women and children to burn to death in a church building where they were being held. When Michael realizes that Hannah would rather take total responsibility for the deaths rather than admit she is illiterate, he struggles with his own moral dilemma. Should he tell the court what he knows and possibly change the outcome of the trial? Again, there are no easy answers.

The erotic sex scenes in the early part of the movie—reportedly delayed until Kross became 18 to avoid any legal difficulties—are handled deftly by director Stephen Daldry. The nudity is complete and uncontrived; that makes the lovemaking and the chemistry between the two seem all the more real. The boy comes across as being captivated with Hannah (and what teenage boy wouldn’t be with the attractive Winslett?). For her part Winslett portrays a character getting her needs met with little or no emotion involved.

Hannah expresses her emotions when Michael reads to her…the only time Michael is in control. Hannah convinces him that she would rather be read to than to read herself and he obliges, reading classics like The Odyssey, Huck Finn and Lady Chatterly’s Lover (whose reading produced the only laugh of the movie when Hannah pronounces it “Disgusting” and then quickly urges Michael to continue).

When Hannah ends the affair by suddenly disappearing her actions cripple Michael emotionally. He never again allows any one to get close to him. As the older Michael Berg, Ralph Fiennes does a superb job of conveying the sadness and isolation he feels without seeming maudlin.

Kate Winslett’s portrayal of Hannah Schmidt in The Reader has resulted in a great deal of well-deserved accolades. She has received Best Supporting Actress awards from both the Hollywood Foreign Press (a.k.a. Golden Globes) and the Broadcast Film Critic’s Association and the Outstanding Supporting Actress Award from her peers in the Screen Actors Guild. She was recently nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category. Winslett delivers an incredible performance, one that allows most of us an inkling of understanding of how a very simple woman could make so many wrong choices because of her pride. 

But it’s the performance of David Kross as the young Michael Berg that manages to convey the complex moral struggle that is the central theme of The Reader. Often with little or no dialogue Kross very believably transforms from a virginal teenager into a cynical, morose law student. Let’s hope we see more of this kid,( although after those sex scenes there isn’t much left to see!).

The Reader is nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress. 



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