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"THE READER"
(2008) (Kate Winslet, David Kross) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A teen enters into a sexual affair with an older woman, unaware of her notorious past until many years later.
PLOT:
Michael Berg (RALPH FIENNES) is a divorced lawyer who's trying to do right by his adult daughter, but occasionally finds himself thinking back on his life, and particularly his involvement with Hanna Schmitz (KATE WINSLET) back in 1958. Then, Michael (DAVID KROSS) is a 15-year-old suffering from scarlet fever when 36-year-old cable car ticket taker Hanna ends up caring for him. After his recovery, they begin having an affair, with her trading sex for him reading classic piece of literature to her, and he forgoes spending time with other classmates such as Sophie (VIJESSNA FERKIC) in favor of being with Hanna. But just as quickly as it began, the affair abruptly ends when she suddenly disappears.

Years later, Michael is a law school student studying under Professor Rohl (BRUNO GANZ). When they go to observe a Nazi war crimes trial, Michael is shocked to see Hanna as one of the defendants, and hear stories from the likes of Rose Mather (LENA OLIN) about the atrocities that Hanna and others allegedly committed. From that point on, and then years again later, Michael must come to terms with that, as well as the aftereffects of Hanna's past actions, including on the likes of Rose's now adult daughter, Ilana (LENA OLIN).

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When people jump into new romantic relationships, it isn't unusual for them to wonder or even ask their partner about their dating and sexual history. While nowadays that's just as much about personal health safety as it is about curiosity, jealousy and/or sexual expectations, those posing the questions often end up receiving answers they'd rather not have known about in hindsight.

For 15-year-old Michael Berg and 36-year-old Hanna Schmitz, an obvious disparity in sexual experience exists between them. In fact, he's so inexperienced that he doesn't even have the wherewithal to quote or paraphrase Dustin Hoffman's character asking Anne Bancrofts' "Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?"

Granted, that landmark film -- that turned the standard mismatched age coupling on its ear -- wouldn't be released for another nine years when the sexually charged drama that starts and then fuels "The Reader" takes place. A period drama that begins one way, turns into something else, and then segues into something entirely different, yet still related to the earlier bits, comes from director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare who've adapted Bernhard Schlink's book "Der Vorleser."

As it jumps around through the years, from 1958 to 1995 with several stops in between, it shows the staying power that such sexual experiences can have on an impressionable young man. As portrayed by David Kross and Kate Winslet in an Oscar worthy performance, the couple don't ask any questions (something that will come back later to haunt the young man in retrospect) and instead just carry out their torrid affair where the only rule is that each encounter be preceded by some literary (but rarely erotic) foreplay, hence the title.

Since the film begins with a scene featuring Ralph Fiennes as the adult lawyer version of that young man, but then doesn't return much to him until later in the film, there's little doubt we'll get to see part of the journey between those two temporal points. Not surprisingly, it's more than just filler, and raises interesting questions about a number of topics. Chief among them is how one should react to disturbing revelations about a loved one's past and if, how and where sympathy fits into that equation.

The brilliant tact that the filmmakers take -- as channeled through Winslet's terrific if troubling performance -- is putting the viewer in the same metaphorical shoes as Michael as a young law student and then later in life. In short, they leave us torn about how to feel about Hanna. Is she a child molester, a war criminal, a self-sacrificial victim, a reformed woman, an unrepentant pragmatist, or some combination thereof?

It's certainly not a comfortable place for viewers or the Michael character, but it certainly gives the film some surprising depth. And much of that stems directly from the superb performance by Winslet who once again throws herself -- literally and figuratively -- into her role with naked abandon.

Although not all viewers will feel this way, it's amazing that she manages to elicit some degree of empathy for her character who's obviously a monster of one degree or another. Of course, it doesn't hurt that a certain revelation more than halfway through the film also casts her as a victim of sorts.

Kross also effectively changes from naive but enthusiastic teen, who's crushed when his sexual teacher and partner abruptly disappears, to a law student obviously conflicted by those fond recollections smashing into a wholly unexpected development and revelation.

And when we finally return in full to Fiennes' take on that character, we see the conflict still in play, as compassion and love -- or at least a memory thereof, hazy as it might be with the passage of time -- are tempered by the reality of the situation (the latter pointedly driven home via a dual role performance by Lena Olin). Throw in a younger generation having to come to grips with the ills and stains of the preceding one, and the overall experience ends up fairly engrossing.

If there's one complaint, it's that the passion so evident in the first third of the film (when all of the sex is occurring), is replaced by cool and far more calculated responses and behavior. It's not a fatal flaw, but that and the revelations of the second act might just keep any number of viewers at an emotional arm's length (and maybe then some) from the proceedings.

Even so, Winslet's stellar performance and the interesting story make "The Reader" hard to put down or forget. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 4, 2008 / Posted January 2, 2009


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