Saturday, January 3, 2009

"The Reader" Tells a Nearly Perfect Story

This is turning out to be a bonanza Oscar season. I wish there were more time for people to catch more of the excellent movies out there. One movie that particularly doesn't seem to be getting the distribution that it deserves is "The Reader." This nearly perfect little film produced by Anthony Minghella from a script by David Hare (based on the book by Bernhard Schlink) is an example of how the best cinema doesn't need special effects, elaborate setups, or gale-force acting from Tom Cruise. Sometimes a simple story, well told, makes for the best movie experience.

That isn't to say that this movie doesn't have a revelatory performance by Kate Winslet (who knew?) and if you're an Oscar follower, you need to see it to know why she'll be on the list for best Female Actor. David Kross as the young Michael Berg is also a real find and could well be on the supporting actor list. Ralph Fiennes is also in it, giving his usual fine performance, but it's really the interaction between Kross and Winslet that rivets you to your seat.

I'm not sure quite how to talk about this movie, since the less you know about it, the more you will enjoy it. And I want you to see it. I went in knowing basically nothing (PLEASE don't read the movie synopsis when you buy your tickets) and that was definitely the best way to see it. It isn't quite the cinema secret of "Crying Game," but if I reveal too much of the story it will diminish your enjoyment as the movie takes the unexpected turns it does.

So maybe I should warn people to stop reading here. Then again, if you've seen it, proceed on, and I will try not to reveal too much.

The movie opens in the post-war Germany of 1959 with a fifteen-year-old Michael Berg getting sick on his way home from school. He's helped by a beautiful and mysterious older woman - Winslet's Hannah Schmitz. After Michael recovers, he goes to thank the woman for her kindness...and one thing leads to another, and the two become lovers.

The rather R-rated lovemaking is sexy as well as honest; as a cinema voyeur you are reminded of the joy and physical discovery of first love in a most convincing way. Perhaps what heightens the tension is that these two people are, in a way, anonymous to each other, and that seems a key element, at least in the beginning, of Michael's interest. There is something in Michael that longs for the extraordinary, and an older woman like Hannah offers much more allure than his coeval female classmates. But who is Hannah? She is a ticket taker on the trolley, an odd bird, a woman subdued but passionate, and seems to have more than just one secret. In school, we overhear one of Michael's teachers analyzing literature: "character is revealed by the things people keep hidden." Those words are prophetic, indeed.

But literature is something Michael is good at, and Hannah soon asks him to read to her during their bouts of lovemaking. The reading and the sex becomes an intimately entwined ritual, and they seem to exist in that special bubble out of time where only young lovers do, even though Hannah isn't so young, and Michael knows little about her.

And it's our experience of the intimacy in this first third of the movie that is so important to the ethical and moral dilemmas the characters face later. The contrast, for Michael, between the physical pleasure with Hannah and what he learns later is key to understanding the momentous decision he later makes regarding her, and his further transformation as the film continues.

And there...I've probably said too much. There are perfect encounters later in the movie I'd love to talk about. For instance, the symbolism of a tin cup, that means so much more than mere money, says perfectly what this movie wants to say: that meaning comes from experience, and ethics comes from meaning. I love that idea.

The movie also wants to talk about Germany, and in a way, Michael's story can be read as a parable for the whole country: first falling in romantic love with its history, then being repulsed by it, choosing to punish it, discovering remorse, and finally coming to terms.

I found that interesting too. But perhaps more amazingly, I found myself understanding something I hadn't seen so well illustrated before: the banal humanity that exists behind even the greatest evils.

A movie that can do that is surely one deserving of recognition.

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