Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews
- Category: Jacqueline Monahan
- Published on 03 January 2009
- Written by Jacqueline Monahan
Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
A teenage schoolboy falls ill and vomits in the gangway of an apartment building, and a sullen woman comes to his aid. Months later, after his recovery from Scarlet Fever, he brings flowers to her shabby apartment to thank her. A short time later, they are in bed together, where it seems like they will stay the entire summer.
15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) falls hopelessly in lust with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a woman twenty years his senior. Statutory rape be damned. The two share many nude encounters prefaced by Michael reading classic literature to Hanna (The Odyssey, War and Peace, Huckleberry Finn) as a kind of brainy foreplay. Hanna will share her body but not her mind, requiring Michael to feed it by reading to her.
Unsympathetic and seemingly devoid of kindness, but with a fading allure, Hanna is a fare collector on a tram (streetcar) and wears a uniform which enhances her no-nonsense demeanor. She rarely smiles. Michael is idealistic, joyous, and full of hyperbole; he thinks he’s in love but merely has discovered the marvel of sex on an adolescent. Hanna is his world.
When Hanna tires of being his world, she suddenly vacates her apartment. Michael is left searching for her in her empty kitchen. Motives are never explained, so we are not sure why Hanna left or what Michael thinks.
Eight years later, a 23-year-old Michael, now in law school, attends a war crimes trial, finding Hanna to be one of the defendants. He discovers that she was an SS guard who assisted in selections, those real-life “It” games that meant certain death if you were the one being tagged. Hanna did the tagging and people died. What would you have her do? She was a guard; it was her job.
Since Hanna is the only one admitting her genocidal role, her female co-defendants gang up on her and accuse her of being their leader, the one who issued the murderous orders and subsequent written reports. Michael knows why this cannot be the case, (look to the title for a clue) but does nothing to aid Hanna. She takes the fall and is sentenced to life in prison.
We must draw our own conclusions here. Hanna and Michael aren’t talking.
The film flashes forward to the eighties and nineties, illustrating Michael’s (now played by a morose Ralph Fiennes) present-day life. He’s a divorced lawyer with a grown daughter, a failed marriage, and an ex-wife we never get to meet.
Michael’s details are as sketchy as Hanna’s. A daughter is thrown in the mix only to be thrown away as irrelevant. A failed marriage is merely mentioned as if that woman were a used facial tissue who’d already popped out of the box and was of no use or insight. Michael’s love for Hanna does not come across as authentic, only the vague memory of overactive hormones unleashed during one summer’s illicit tryst.
Inexplicably, he begins a correspondence with Hanna, and repeats a literary act from their days as a couple. This spurs Hanna on to a binge of self-improvement. The impending possibility of her parole throw the two former lovers together again with a (by now) predictable consequence.
Kate Winslet takes on the thankless role of an aging curmudgeon, starved for affection but giving none in return. She appears to be caked in powdered sugar as she ages, yet she is never sympathetic and we don’t root for her. Ralph Fiennes looks uncomfortable and somber in all of his scenes, as if even he were unsure of his role here. His serene blue-eyed gaze can be interpreted in several ways, from thoughtful rumination to vacant apathy. David Kross pulls off his horny summer scenes with an earnest appreciation that is believable.
Director Stephen Daldry’s (The Hours) adaptation of Bernard Schlink’s 1995 best-selling novel skirts any type of emotional intimacy and is much too clinical, like trying to cultivate an already awkward love story in a laboratory Petri dish. There must be context for action, or lack thereof, and that is ignored here. There is no suspense or revelation, just the unfolding of lengthy passages of time during which both characters exist, but do not appear to live. By not giving voice to their thoughts, assumptions, accusations and conclusions, there is precious little discovery anywhere.
Weighty subject matter such as the Holocaust, death, guilt, and personal responsibility do not automatically make for profound cinema just because they are thrown into the mediocre mix. Still, many have fallen for that premise and many more will, thinking that they ought to.
Don’t blame Schlink. His book was translated into 40 languages, all of them bound to replenish what the film sadly lacks. Seems The Reader was meant to be read.