Genius Products // 2008 // 124 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // April 28th, 2009
How far would you go to protect a secret?
Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and a number of other awards, The Reader was one of the most highly acclaimed films of 2008, yet it didn't exactly light the box office on fire. Was it overrated, or under-seen?
Through happenstance, fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) becomes embroiled in a steamy affair with a woman eleven years his senior, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet, Titanic), in 1950s Germany. The pair spends the summer making love and, at Hanna's request, with Michael reading book after book aloud to her. Then one day she disappears.
Eleven years later, Michael, now a law student, is part of a select group invited to watch and analyze a controversial trial. The defendants are revealed to be Nazi prison guards, of which Hanna is one, much to Michael's shock and dismay. As the trial progresses, Michael realizes that he holds a key piece of information that could affect the case against Hanna, and he struggles with moral and personal feelings clouding his view of the right thing to do.
More time passes, and Michael, as a grown man (now played by Ralph Fiennes, The English Patient), has become a successful lawyer, if not a successful husband. He continues to struggle with the decision he made, and with the relationship he had with Hanna.
The Reader is a sneaky movie. For about three quarters of its running time, I was enjoying it on an intellectual level, but was disappointed by how emotionally disengaged I felt from the events playing out on screen. The characters seemed cold, distant, and cryptic, making empathy rather hard to come by. It reminded me of Atonement, another sharply written tale that didn't really move me like I hoped it would. Then something happens between the two protagonists, something unexpected and shocking that shatters Michael Berg's icy exterior and offers insight into Hanna Schmitz psyche, snapping into sharp focus the film's thesis. I was wholly unprepared for how much this event would change my perception of The Reader. Add my voice to the chorus proclaiming it among 2008's best films.
While it deals directly with war crimes committed during the Holocaust, The Reader strives to speak about larger issues affecting the human condition, specifically our tendency to judge others without understanding what it is to walk in their shoes. It is an unassuming picture, and certainly doesn't expect us to forgive or absolve Hanna Schmitz from what she's done. Indeed, a late scene between Michael and a survivor played by Lena Olin (Havana) ensures that the devastation wrought by people like Hanna is unmistakable. It's not even about whether Michael makes the right choice when he decides what to do with the information he knows: the film is more interested in why he makes that choice, and the debate over the legitimacy of his reasons. The Reader is awash in gray morality.
Michael and Hanna are complicated, believable characters with both flaws and virtues. The circumstances in which they find themselves are extraordinary, but are not treated as such: instead, these are simply the events that make up their lives, and they fumble through as people do. They're juicy parts, and Kate Winslet and David Kross attack them ferociously. Kross, in his first English-language role, expertly portrays Michael's journey from youthful innocence to tortured soul in a subtle, understated manner. Winslet's character, while also quite restrained, does fantastic work as the tormented, blue-collar Hanna; she earns the Oscar she was awarded for the role. Fiennes' contribution is rather thankless, as his torment is internalized more than anyone else, yet the movie ultimately works because of our ability to understand Michael through his performance, and he supplies his characteristically solid work here.
The team of screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry, who previously collaborated on the highly acclaimed The Hours, do a masterful job of distilling The Reader down to its essential components, ensuring not a moment is wasted. While it might not be apparent on first viewing, every scene in The Reader serves a distinct purpose, slowly building toward the emotional breakthrough late in the piece. Despite the lack of voiceover -- which would seem essential given that the novel on which the film is based is written in the first person -- the characters' motivations and conflicts are eventually made clear without resorting to excessive exposition. Dialogue is sparse, and scenes are short and pointed.
The photography, courtesy of two of the finest cinematographers working today (Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Chris Menges, Into the Wild), is beautifully presented in high definition on this release. With a bitrate in the thirties, encoded in AVC, The Reader's soft, naturalistic lighting positively glows. The ample flesh tones are consistently natural, and shadow detail is exceptional. I noticed one short scene that may have been the victim of excessive DNR, as the characters' faces appeared a bit waxy, but otherwise I saw no compression issues or ringing. Audio-wise, the score and subtle ambient effects are spread generously around the room; dialogue is distortion-free and natural sounding. It's not a terribly aggressive mix, but it's a highly competent one. One of the things I love about Blu-ray is that even relatively quiet films are treated to top-notch audio.
The slate of extras is generous and of surprising quality. The 25-minute making-of featurette is comprehensive, detailing the origins of the film and providing a tribute to late producers Sidney Pollack (Michael Clayton) and Anthony Minghella (Breaking and Entering). A whopping 45 minutes of deleted scenes are provided, along with interesting pieces on the production design and score. One of the highlights is the featurette on prosthetics used to age Kate Winslet: a substantial amount of aging work was done, although it's virtually seamless in the picture itself, and Winslet is an amusing guide to the six-hour process. I only wish Daldry and Hare had provided an audio commentary; the dense material would have no doubt prompted a fascinating discussion.
The Reader is a powerful, provocative film experience I highly recommend, and there's no better way to view it than on Blu-ray.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Cinema Verdict Review