Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Reader (2008)

The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)

Romances, I believe, are not grounded on the similarities that would-be-lovers share but by the differences they would have to overcome to be together. Cinderella stories are not so much about their lovers, the stereotypical Prince Charming and his hapless amore, but the differences that set the characters apart, and their struggles and accompanying acts of fate that would lead to their eventual reunion. Half of Stephen Daldry's The Reader has the makings of a great romance. The film's would-be lovers are implicated in an affair by a twist of fate, pushing the two individuals separated by age, social status, and, as revealed later on in the film, moral standing, together. The success or failure of their union rests solely in their ability to wrestle with their differences; and Daldry exploits this wholeheartedly, infusing the film with a sensuality that is at once seductive and bizarre.

In the late fifties, a teenage Michael Berg (David Kross), suffering from scarlet fever, alights from his tram and finds himself in the entrance to the apartment building of Hannah Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a ticket dispenser who is more than a decade his senior. Hannah helps Michael find his way home. After recuperating from scarlet fever, Michael comes back to Hannah's apartment to show his gratitude. He catches a glimpse of Hannah's naked body as she is dressing out of her uniform; she sees him staring; and obviously flustered by his exhibit of his sexual attraction, flusters away from the apartment only to return, first in a stalking manner, and later on, as a familiar fixture in the apartment: naked while reading to Hannah classics before making passionate love to her. The strange affair lasted for a few months before Hannah suddenly disappears from her apartment. Michael retreats from his adolescent fantasies, graduates from high school, enters law school, becomes a lawyer, marries, becomes a father, and doing all that while carrying the lasting burden of his affair with Hannah.

Daldry explores the love affair through the eyes of Michael, and as Michael, Kross has the responsiblity to depict the initial awkwardness, overpowered eventually by sexual curiosity, that describes Michael's interest with Hannah. He succeeds in this regard. Kross' teenage Michael is hardly discreet in his sexual desires, stumbling in the codes of sexual language yet willing, very willing, to be guided. His sexual triumph does not go unnoticed; his newly found sexual relations suddenly lifts his spirits and gets him energized (when a waitress mistakes Hannah as her mother, he passionately kisses Hannah, not to express his feelings, but to show-off). However, he unwittingly falls into the trap that most novices fall under, and mixes love with the initial high of his first sexual contact. Winslet, as the film's object of desire, makes most of what essentially is a passive role. Perhaps her most difficult task, which Winslet was able to comply with, is to keep Hannah's shame of her illiteracy, a point which the film hinges its logic to, from utter ludicrousness.

Unfortunately, The Reader is not and was never intended as a romance. Midway, the film shifts tone and plunges into a discourse of moral philosophizing, taking into account the facts that Hannah used to be a prison guard in Auschwitz, illiterate and is thus, pressured into taking full responsibility over the atrocities that happened during her tenure in Auschwitz, and added to that, Michael's previous affair with her, which would later on, open an avenue for his very own sin of omission, something that would bother him for the rest of his life. Daldry opts to graduate from delivering the well-earned thrills of Michael and Hannah's many secret encounters and delves into the depths of post-World War II guilt, supposedly shared by everyone who opted silence despite knowledge of the ensuing war atrocities, juxtaposed with Michael's own guilt, of keeping to himself a fact that would have saved Hannah from incarceration.

The film is bookended by a side-story where Michael (Ralph Fiennes, unusually dull and drab) is about to meet a daughter he has not met in years, and the ending attempts at providing some sort of closure and redemption for Michael; which I thought was completely unnecessary (as with all the confusing time leaps from Michael's past to his present, and vice versa, that infest the picture) and adds only to the cluttery flow of the film.
Ultimately, The Reader suffers from having split personality. Half of it is wildly entertaining: a frenzied coming-of-age tale that quickly transforms into a delirious love story. The other half obviously endeavors at imparting something important about shame and guilt, yet ultimately suffers from being graceless and unappealing.

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