2008 / Best Actress / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #443: The Reader (2008)

Two years later, Winslet was nominated for another Best Actress Oscar this time for her role in suburban drama Little Children. She also appeared in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Extras in which she claimed that actors who play Nazis often go on to win Oscars. Someone somewhere was obviously watching this episode as; a couple of years later, Winslet was cast as former Auschwitz guard Hanna Schmitz in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader.

The film is mainly split into three parts as we follow the relationship between Hanna and the initially 15-year-old Michael Berg. The first act of the show sees the somewhat gawkish teenage Michael meeting Hanna for the first time as he experiences the onset of scarlet fever. Michael and the older Hanna spend a lot of time together with her demanding more of him and as a result alienating him from his friends. Eventually tiring of their liaisons, which involved sex and him reading to her, Michael ends things and subsequently goes to law school. Michael encounters Hanna once again when his law professor takes a group of students to learn from the war trials that are currently taking place in Berlin. It is here where Michael learns that Hanna was a guard in Auschwitz and also that she is illiterate hence her obsession with hearing others read. Winslet scored the Oscar-winning triumvirate, not only playing a Nazi but also one with a disability who physically ages on screen. This ageing process happens in the film’s third act where the now married, and later divorced, Michael teaches Hanna to read using books from the library and a tape recorder. Michael, now played by Ralph Fiennes, encourages his former lover to finally own up to her mistakes and the two eventually meet up just before she’s released. As The Reader never pretends to be a romantic film as such, Michael and Hanna aren’t given their happy ending and instead he has to wrap the story up himself.

As the film divides itself into third acts, I will attempt to do the same with my review as I found The Reader to be three entirely different movies. At the start, The Reader feels like a film about forbidden romance as we follow Michael and Hanna’s illicit trysts. For a film with so many sex scenes, I found The Reader to be incredibly passionless as there was never really any chemistry between Winslet and young actor David Kross. The second part of the film, involving the war trials, was more engaging and this to me was when Winslet’s performance was at its strongest. The involvement of Bruno Ganz, as Michael’s Holocaust surviving law professor, added to the quality of this segment as did David Hare’s adapted screenplay. Moving on from the courtroom drama of the second act, the third part of The Reader almost felt like The Shawshank Redemption as Hanna finally overcame her illiteracy with Michael’s outside help. After a strong second act, The Reader lost me once again as I felt that Daldry and Hare packed too much in to a short amount of screen time. Michael’s marriage, the birth of his first child and his divorce were all skipped over at such a quick pace that nothing really had a chance to sink in.
One of the brightest spots of these final scenes was Ralph Fiennes who was perfectly cast as the somewhat emotionless Michael. Fiennes and Winslet’s only scene together was one of The Reader’s strongest and I personally wished that they could’ve shared more screen time together. Alas this wasn’t to be and after the end credits rolled I felt incredibly unaffected what I’d seen in the last two hours. It’s very rare that a film leaves me so emotionless but, save Winslet’s above average performance, there wasn’t a lot to care about in the film. That’s why I’m so surprised that it was nominated for Best Picture and I feel that Winslet’s win came due to the fact that she was due a win. It’s a shame that The Reader is the film that Winslet won her Oscar for as she’s been so much stronger elsewhere and, due to the fact that the superior Revolutionary Road was released around the same time, Daldry’s movie wasn’t even the actress’ best that year.


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