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Non-Review Review: The Reader

The first of the big Oscar nominees to be released on DVD/Blu Ray in Ireland, it’s little surprise that Dad came home with The Reader this weekend.

I like to think I’m an open-minded sort of guy. I can watch controversial films without blinking. I can even stomach the occassional political diatribe and acknowledge its well-crafted artistry (I enjoyed Lions for Lambs despite its hamfistedness). Yet The Reader just irks me. Perhaps it’s the way the film tries so hard to pass itself off as a ‘big idea’ film (and evidentally succeeded, securing a Best Picture nod). Perhaps it’s the way that it acts like it has got guts, asking tough questions when all it does is dance around them and undermine them with shameless Oscar-baiting (let’s look at german post-war guilt – but let’s make the subject of this examination an illiterate, uglied-up, pedophilic Kate Winslet).

The romance at the start is clunky and boring. It’s forced and seems intentionally designed to be provocative and edgy, featuring an older woman and a teenager exploring their sexuality. But he reads to her and somehow deeply touches her cynical soul. At one point in a montage, she breaks down while hugging deep to his chest. Given the tone of the piece he’s reading, the mood established and what we’ve seen of the character up to that point, it is – wait for it – shameless Oscar-baiting. In fairness, Winslet is good, solid and reliable. On the other hand, this isn’t her best performance of a long and varied career – it’s not even the best one this year (check out Revolutionary Road). At this point the film is dull, but not yet outright offensive. What is worth noting is how comfortable the film is presenting a pedophilic tryst, though it shies from showing us the true horrors of Hannah’s actions. The difference? I guess we’re supposed to find one artsy and daring, but the other is just too out there to risk showing.

Then comes the trial. The film attempts something laudible. It raises questions of morals and ethics and then discusses legality. I was actually kind of excited that the film would discuss how you could punish people for doing things that were – strictly speaking – perfectly legal at the time? Then it drops the ball in two ways:

  • It suggests that the trials after World War II couldn’t touch Germans who were “just following orders”. That’s just wrong. There’s a reason they call it the Nuremburg defense, dude. And it’s not because it worked. This doesn’t undermine the questions the film asks, but it just flat-out lies to the audience. Which offends me. It also prevents me from trusting the movie.
  • On a deeper level, it presents us with a case study that is ridiculously skewed. The clear message of the film is that Hannah shouldn’t have to take responsibility for her actions because she couldn’t read. I have to qualify this assertion with the fact that I am not a psychiatrist or anything so exotic… but, last time I checked, illiteracy does not excuse sociopathy (a bunch of Jews on a death march are locked in a burning church; Hannah protests she was tasked to guard them, not kill them; so, instead of letting them out and risking their escape, she lets all the prisoners she was instructed to escort burn to death… of course, the film, for all its claimed bravado and daringness, doesn’t show us that scene; nope, that would make it too real and remove any sympathy for Hannah, as well as scuttling Winslet’s Oscar chances), nor does it stop people from realising that genocide is bad. If you want to discuss German culpability in the wake of the war, at least have the balls to base it on the assumption that not all Germans are idiots. Or that being illiterate doesn’t mean you can’t properly guage the seriousness of your actions.

These segments are cringeworthy and insulting. The film assures us that it is asking tough questions. Maybe it is, but it’s also rigging the answers, asking us to accept that Hannah can’t tell the difference between right and wrong because she can’t read. Maybe I am simplifying it a bit, but that’s the core theme of these segments. The movie treats Hannah like some sort of Nazi Rain Man. And it seems to expect us to draw that all of Germany is somehow like this.

The third segment comes out the best. Here the film actually manages to step out from the shadow of what came before and explore themes of responsibility. I almost give the film props for having a character point out that nothing deserves comparison to the holocaust in terms of scale. Almost. Then I realise the film is still making comparisons, this time attempting to equate Michael’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for Hannah with Germany’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the holocaust. The third act benefits from the presence of Ralph Fiennes, who brings an air of gravitas to the role of the younger man, and a sense of pathos. This time when Hannah breaks down on hearing her lover read to her, it feels earned rather than exploitive. It’s a magical montage which is the sole reason to consider watching the film. It helps that I would listen to Ralph Fiennes read the frickin’ phone book. Sure, it’s as exploitive as the rest of the movie, but it isn’t quite as condescending and offensive, which goes a long way towards redeeming it in the context of the film.

Still, the film is a mess for two thirds of its running time. What bothers me more than the fact that it says nothing of substance is that it pretends it does. Lecturers and teachers in the film return time and again to themes of identity and responsibility (in a way that screams “here’s a theme!” at the audience as if they are as stupid as Hannah seems to be), yet the film sidesteps both issues. If you want to exlore how Hannah’s illeteracy defines her identity, don’t use it as some Freudian excuse for the genocide of an entire people. “I can’t read” is just as much of a copout as “I was just following orders”, but the film treats the two concepts as interchangeable.

As you can gather, I didn’t enjoy the film, nor was I provoked by it. Tough questions are those asked by Schindler’s List or Downfall or Conspiracy. In comparison, this looks like a kindergarden kid drew a nice picture of what he thought a question might look like. If you have to, shut your brain off for thirty minutes in the middle. At least then you’ll end up with a dull film containing a few inspired moments.

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The Reader is a Best Picture nominated drama directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours). It features an Oscar-winning performance from Kate Winslet (Titanic, Revolutionary Road) and a strong supporting performance from Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, The Constant Gardener). It was released in the UK and Ireland on 2nd January 2009, and in the USA a week later on 9th January 2009, though a limited pre-release in Los Angeles (10th December 2008) made the film eligible for award contention.

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9 Responses

  1. […] m0vie blog an Irish nerd's eye look at the world of film « Non-Review Review: The Reader Welcome to Baltimore… […]

  2. […] last used in 1943 for kicks. It wants to avoid ticking off film buffs by nominating sub-par dreck (The Reader was this year’s example) instead of what are generally considered to be stronger films (last […]

  3. […] spunk and moxy). I’ll be the first to admit that I will lay into an awards season movie (like The Reader) for pretending to be too intelligent, while lacking the other elements that make up a good film. […]

  4. […] retrospect, it’s hard to believe the nomination of one crappy holocaust movie had such a large impact on the way that the Academy looks at itself. I’m happy to see them […]

  5. […] at our five nominees, it’s easy to see the older members being won over by Frost/Nixon, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and seeing younger members voting for Slumdog Millionaire […]

  6. […] List exclusively. I think they refer to Oscar-friendly (to say the least) fare like Good or The Reader or The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas. All films attempt a nuanced portrayal of life under the […]

  7. […] with their backs up against the wall know how to sell films to Oscar voters – look to The Reader for that – and they know that labelling the story as ’science-fiction’ would be a […]

  8. […] but I also think that the two leads also deserved recognition (Winslet is much better here than in The Reader, even if both films were intended Oscar bait for […]

  9. […] a fair shot – I shouldn’t walk out after ten minutes. Even if it is horrible (like say The Reader or Speed Racer), somebody put effort into making it, so I will do them at least the honour of […]

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