Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes Make ‘The Reader’ a Worthwhile Adaptation

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Two of the best actors working in film today, Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet, offer enough to make “The Reader” a cinematic book worth reading, even if it’s not the masterpiece it could have been with a few different choices by its director and writer.

“The Reader” is a surprisingly ineffective film when approached on an emotional level, as if director Stephen Daldry and adapter David Hare are very consciously trying to keep the viewer at arms length, but Fiennes and Winslet are doing such quality work that it merits recommendation just as an acting exercise. Just as the great work by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella elevate “Frost/Nixon” to a recommendation despite the film’s flaws, “The Reader” could have been a better film but its two leads are perfect.

The Reader opens from The Weinstein Company on December 25, 2008.

Part of the problem with “The Reader” is that its lead character, Michael Berg (David Kross) is such a non-entity. The adult Michael is played by Fiennes, but the majority of the film is a flashback to Berg’s teenage years in post-WWII Germany. When he was only fifteen, Michael met the stunningly open Hanna, who introduced him to the world of sex. Hanna and Michael would spend days bathing each other, making love, and the young man would read to the illiterate older woman.

The Reader opens from The Weinstein Company on December 25, 2008.

Michael reads “The Odyssey”, “The Lady with the Little Dog”, and “Huck Finn” to his lover, until she disappears one day with no warning. Years later, while in law school, Michael sits in on a Nazi trial and discovers that Hanna had a dark, dark secret. Michael knows something about Hanna’s past that could affect the trial, but he stays quiet. “The Reader” is about how we deal with defining moments in our lives, both individually and as a nation.

It could be a flaw of the source material (a hit book by Bernhard Schlink that I’ll admit that I’m unfamiliar with) or Hare’s adaptation of it, but I never felt like I knew the young Michael, a fatal flaw that never allowed me to react to the film on more than an intellectual level. Winslet bares more than just her soul in a physically and emotionally open role but Michael is always a mystery. It could be argued that the adult Michael is trying to come to terms with an important chapter of his life, one that he fully doesn’t understand himself, but instead of the three-actor showcase that “The Reader” could have been, I merely found Kross to be the connection between Fiennes and Winslet. The actor and character gets lost.

What’s unusual about “The Reader” is that this is clearly a story about emotionally raw and complex issues like forgiveness, retribution, first love, passion, and a country’s coming to terms with its dark past. Those are the issues that made the book such a phenomenon. And yet it’s a film that never hits the emotional chords that could have elevated it from an “interesting” film to one that could have been truly memorable. It’s an acting exercise instead of the commentary on humanity or even the believable character study that it could have been.

The Reader opens from The Weinstein Company on December 25, 2008.

There’s a nagging sensation that, other than some of the daring decisions by Winslet, the team involved in adapting “The Reader” are going through the motions. There’s a passion missing from the storytelling that would have elevated the film to another level. Of course, it could have been worse, as Daldry and Hare do avoid the melodrama that could have easily seeped its way into a story like “The Reader” and turned it into an overly emotional mess.

Kate Winslet gives one of the best performances of the year - don’t be surprised if she finally gets her long-deserved Oscar - and Fiennes continues to be one of the most interesting actors alive with his third great turn of the year after “In Bruges” and “The Duchess”, but that’s the extent of the praise for “The Reader”, a movie that’s never bad but too easy to forget by the time you move on to the next book on your list of cinematic adaptations.

‘The Reader’ stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Bruno Ganz, and Lena Olin. ‘The Reader,’ which was written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry, opened in Chicago on December 25, 2008.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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The Reader, The Wrestler and Flight 1549...

The Reader, The Wrestler and Flight 1549…

If the universe is fractal, a family comprised of unique parts yet each related, then patterns can be found where none were directly intended. It’s the nature of things.

How is that Marconi, Tesla, Popov, Lodge, Fessenden, Hertz, Dolbear, Loomis, Stubblefield and Maxwell all conceived of the radio and invented its necessary parts, separately and apart from each other at the same time? But it was Marconi who nailed it - he owns the radio - Tesla went on to other things, but Stubblefield? - Lost except to Google and 3 radio historians in a library somewhere.

In the movie, The Wrestler, Randy -The Ram - Robinson and his junto of wrestler/performers put on a show, an American show - staged, pure fakery - the ritual is more powerful than the reality.

In the movie, The Reader, Hannah Schmidt, is tried for the murder of 300 Jewish prisoners trapped in a burning church. The Defendants and Judges sit on stage - we know there is a deeper explanation than the evidence will admit but the Court will render its verdict - its ritual of punishment meted.

Two days before the inauguration of Barack Obama, flight 1549 is steered to safety by an unlikely hero, a rather standard issue guy who saves 155 lives just as Obama, an unlikely President, starts his attempt to steer the country to an economic soft landing in hopes of saving countless livelihoods. Sully, the pilot, is a seemingly reluctant hero, no interviews, no show, no ticker tape parade - just did his job and turns a respectful but cold shoulder to the limelight of the 24/7 cable TV spectacle. By nature more Stubblefield than Marconi, our pilot is more than brave - he is decent.

The Reader and The Wrestler - one refined and utterly sad, the other gritty and utterly sad. Two very different films but each bound by connective ligature to the pyramidal (and maybe particularly modern American) kernel of human isolation - that core inside all of us that our flight 1549 pilot seems to have (amazingly) excised from his DNA: the it’s-the-outside-that-matters-not-the-inside gene; a/k/a longing for adoration; a/k/a pride - amour propre.

Hannah Schmidt (in the Reader), the former SS guard stands accused of murder and she is illiterate. Robin “Randy The Ram” Robinson, (in the Wrestler) the former wrestling headliner, stands all blond haired, steroid pumped, heart failed image and he is emotionally illiterate.

Hannah Schmidt has a “kid” (she calls her young lover - who reads to her before they make love - “kid”) and Ram has a kid, a grown up daughter whom he has not seen in years. Hannah’s kid, her lover, reads to her and teaches her heart-love and in return she teaches him fuck-love (he seems the better pupil than she) - but in the end - it’s not enough. Ram’s kid, his lost daughter, teaches Ram forgiveness - but in the end - it’s not enough.

Hannah’s pride, her refusal to admit her illiteracy, leads to her confinement without kid. The Wrestler’s pride in his past glory and refusal to kick his addiction to the known commodity - impersonal fame (no matter how small time) for the unknown cold turkey love of one single woman — who says to him all anyone can ask or give: “I’m here, aren’t I?” - leads to his emotional imprisonment (without his kid too). She goes to jail. He remains confined in the isolation of the roar of the crowd. For both its a life sentence.

In the end, Hannah, still behind bars in her jail cell, climbs up a stack of shaky but carefully balanced books and from on high hangs herself. In the end, the Wrestler, behind the ropes in his jail cell of a wrestling ring, shakily climbs up the corner post, carefully balanced, and from on high throws himself down to the canvass for his last jump.

Two movies as related in their sadness and regret as Marconi and Stubblefield were in their invention. We shall see how Sully fares when the talk shows come calling. Its the nature of things.

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