Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Where was my Hannah Schmidt when I was fifteen years old? Minus the whole Nazi war criminal thing of course. Hollywood’s ‘Nazi’s were bad people’ month continues with ‘The Reader’, a coming of age story like few others that for ninety percent of its running time was one fine film, with the last ten percent leaving me thinking that this was something I could’ve done without.

It would appear upon meeting Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), where this movies present takes place in the mid 1990’s, is that he is a cold and distant man. He has obviously just spent the night with a woman, and though we have a pretty good idea about what transpired the previous evening, this morning Michael is perfunctory and polite treating the woman as if she had just prepared his taxes. It is clear that Michael likes sex, just not all that intimacy nonsense that is usually associated with the act.

The question is why is the successful Berlin based barrister like this, seemingly in a constant state of detached depression? For the answer the film takes us back to the late 50’s where an ailing young Michael Berg (David Kross) is helped by woman who saw to it that he made it home safely. Once well Michael goes back to thank the woman and accidentally sees her in her underwear, and having been a fifteen year old boy, that’s more than enough. Michael visits her again, is summarily seduced and for the next couple of months or so he’s skipping classes and getting home late because he has business to take care of.

This woman in her mid thirties is Hannah Schmidt (Kate Winslet). I’m not quite sure what she sees in the boy, but Hannah does seem to be an isolated and very lonely person. After the wild newness of the sex has toned down a bit the couple attempts to get to know each other a little with Hannah particularly enjoying having Michael read to her. Their relationship would last the summer with Hannah suddenly disappearing for personal reasons and young Michael internalizing this abandonment, convinced that he was in love, and is now unable to come out of his shell. This is why we don’t have sex with fifteen year-olds. That and also because it’s against the law.

Michael would see Hannah some years later as he is surveying a Nazi trail as a law student and to his shock and dismay, Hannah Schmidt is one of the defendants. Though Hannah far from innocent, she isn’t guilty of all of the crimes that she is being accused of. Hannah’s shame causes her to fall on the sword and Michael could have helped her because he knows the truth, but his personal shame prevents him from doing even that, thus making a depressed dude even more depressed. It won’t be for a number of years until Michael finally does something to deal with these feelings he’s been carrying around for the majority of his life, feelings that have tainted pretty much every relationship he’s ever been in.

With ‘The Reader’, based on a novel by Bernhard Schlink, director Stephen Daldry has crafted a film which effortlessly glides over a number of genres, all of them being universally engaging to experience for the most part. The film rings true as a coming of age story with David Kross convincingly playing the part of a boy far too emotionally immature to deal with the situation that he has found himself in, no matter how cool this situation may seem to be at the time. I merely ask in jest where my Hannah Schmidt was when I was fifteen because it is the height of irresponsibility for an adult to subject a child to this kind of behavior. Now Miss Schmidt, as she is so capably handled by Kate Winslet, is a much more complex character to get a bead on. Ultimately I’d have to read that the character is selfish and cowardly. Selfish because she places her desires before whatever the potential consequences and cowardly because her complete inability to suppress her pride over matters of simple right and wrong. It’s almost incomprehensible what the character of Hannah would do to hide a virtually worthless personal secret.

As a coming of age story ‘The Reader’ was engrossing and it became even more so during the trial portion of the movie with the young Michael Berg struggling over his own issues of right and wrong, it’s when it came time for the senior Michael Berg to resolve these issues that movie bogged down for me. This particular part of the film lacked the electricity and urgency that the earlier part of the film possessed, with simply too much time spent looking at Ralph Fiennes character pitying himself and his scenes with the older Hannah Schmidt came off as ambiguous in their emotional intentions. There was a very good scene near the end of the film between Fiennes and Lena Olin who plays a child survivor of the concentration camps which does lift up the last act, but I don’t know if it saves it.

Despite these issues I might have had with ‘The Reader’ it was still a finely tuned drama with great acting, a tightly knit narrative and excellent direction provided by Stephen Daldry. I do think it runs out steam as it attempts to conclude itself, but it was still a very good movie to experience.

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