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The Reader

Rated R, 123 min. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 26, 2008

The Reader I haven't read Bernhard Schlink's 1997 bestseller from which this film is adapted, but Oprah did, and apparently that sealed the deal: Morally ambiguous times such as our own recall the ghosts of yesteryear's nightmares. The question, then, at the heart of The Reader is what have we learned (and what might we have forgotten) from history's bloody backwash? It could be argued, on the basis of the recent troubling Senate report on the possibility of Bush, Rumsfeld, and their torturous gang being guilty of prosecutable war crimes, that the powers that be have, sadly, absorbed precious little when it comes to moral governance during wartime. Luckily for The Reader, the angelic Ganz, as a sage professor of law, is on hand to nudge the question of wartime culpability to the fore. But that's not what's most remarkable about The Reader, it's just what's most intellectually chewy. The real red meat of Daldry's film is the May-December romance which blossoms between a weary-looking, sexually rapacious streetcar ticket-taker in postwar Berlin and the sickly young schoolboy on whom she initially takes pity and then seduces, ravenously and to his great delight. Hanna (Winslet, shockingly good throughout) lives alone in a cold-water flat barely big enough to accommodate the claw-foot tub where gawky, shy Michael Berg (an enthusiastic, excellent Kross) gets his libido scrubbed raw. And then, after their (highly educational for the virginal Michael) couplings, he reads to her from, among other classic postcoital classics, Lady Chatterley's Lover. ("That's disgusting!" objects Hanna, nude in a tub with an underage boy, before acquiescing to D.H. Lawrence's sensual wordplay.) And then one day, Hanna is gone, with no explanation, and Michael grows into a promising young law student and, later, into a sorrowful-seeming Fiennes. What appears to be sorrow and pity, however, are instead the rose-tinted echoes of the affair. The Reader's devastating midsection reveals Hanna's previous life as a Nazi war criminal, one who was party to a particularly horrific act. She is on trial for her life, and Michael's law class is front and center at the grueling trial, the new Germany judging the past and, by default, themselves as well. Daldry, working from a superior script by David Hare (The Hours), has crafted a film about guilt, love, and history and how the three skeins create human beings or, alternately, human monsters. There is a sense of ambiguity at the core of The Reader that makes it all the more brutal, all the more honest in its deflowering of love and what one imagines love ought to be instead of what it too often is. The past never finishes flogging the human heart, it seems. Certainly not at the movies. (See "Writing 'The Reader,'" Dec. 26, for an interview with David Hare.)
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