Reader, The: Kate Winslet’s Oscar Card?

The Prime of Miss Kate Winslet: After turning a stellar performance in a tough and demanding role in “Revolutionary Road,” Kate Winslet again shines in Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader,” playing another challenging role, that of a middle-aged woman, carrying the burden of two big secrets, who’s engaged in a love affair with an eager and excitable teenager half her age.

I anticipate arguments whether Winslet’s role is lead or supporting (I think lead), but there’s no doubt that both performances are Oscar-worthy, and with the Weinstein Company’s marketing muscles, Winslet may end up with two Oscar nominations, much as Julianne Moore did in 2004, garnering a lead for “Far From Heaven” and supporting for “The Hours.”  (The role was originally cast with Nicole Kidman, who dropped out due to pregnancy, but I think Winslet is a better choice).

“The Hours” is relevant for the discussion here, for it too was directed by Daldry, and represented an intelligent adaptation of a much-admired book that suffered from middlebrow sensibility and conventional treatment of subtle issues.  Having made three films (including “Billy Elliott”), it’s safe to say that Daldry is a proficient director, who chooses tasty, mature material for adult viewers, but lacks the vision and skills that would elevate his films above the literary and literal.

Even more sharply uneven than “Revolutionary Road,” “The Reader” has a wonderfully engaging first hour, set in the 1950s, but then in the second half, which is set decades later, devolves into a more conventional and pedestrian melodrama, in which Winslet’s character, a Nazi guard, is put on trial and is sentenced to life in prison.  (Also, much like Julianne Moore’s heavy make-up in “The Hours,” Winslet’s make-up as an older woman is poorly applied and works against her performance in the later chapters).

Before I begin my analysis, one more word about the behind the scenes of this honorable production, which is dedicated to the late producer-directors Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, who died within months apart earlier this year.  Do not expect to see Scott Rudin’s name among the many producers, because as you know from a much publicized act, he opted to remove his name from the credits, due to a dispute with the Weinstein brothers about the movie’s release date; he claimed the movie could not be ready for a December bow.

“The Reader” is based on the critically acclaimed and popular German novel by Bernhard Schlink, which was published in 1995, and has been translated into over 40 languages; it was the first German book to reach number one on the New York Times’ Best-Seller List.  The novel tackles some grave moral, philosophical, and historical questions, which continue to plague Germany as a country.  Primary among them are: How do you live in the shadow of the Holocaust, the greatest atrocity of modern history And can a younger generation of Germans come to terms with the unforgivable sins of its elders  Phrased differently, “The Reader” is very much an attempt at an acknowledgement, if not reconciliation, of a turbulent past that continues to haunt Germany seven decades after the catastrophe had happened.

Is it only a matter of time Would Germany’s younger generation (grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who lived in the 1930s and 1940s, and particularly those who supported Hitler) ever be in a position to accept their past  And what does “acceptance” mean

The book and the film suggest that some legacies may be too overwhelming to comprehend, let alone rationalize or forgive.  Some past conducts and decisions are just too evil and too terrible to recover from.  These issues become more manifest in the story via the characters of Rose Mather and Ilana Mather, Jewish mother and daughter who have survived the Holocaust (both played by Lena Olin).

On the most convincing level, “The Reader” is a gripping coming-of-age tale, centering on Michael Berg, a 15-year-old, upper-middle class boy growing up in post-war Germany, whose earnest personality and early stirrings of love and sexuality involve a mysterious older femme, who hides a shameful past, along with another secret, which is much deeper and more personal.

The first scene depicts a random encounter that would turn fateful for two strangers who meet during a rainstorm.  Walking down the street, Michael Berg (Kross) suddenly falls ill. Coughing heavily and unable to walk, he is helped to his home by Hannah Schmitz (Winslet), a stranger who happens to pass by.  After recovering from a scarlet fever, Michael seeks Hannah to thank her, and visits her with a bouquet of flowers.

Erotic tension prevails from the start. A shy Michael takes a bath, after being messed up by helping Hannah with the coal.  Wiping his slender body with a towel, Hannah stands fully naked behind him.  Clearly a virgin, and lacking experience with girls, Michael doesn’t know how to react–or what to do.  Bewilderment and confusion soon lead to sexual arousal, and the two engage in sexual intercourse, with Hannah as the experienced teacher and Michael as the eager-to-learn student.

One sexual encounter leads to another, and soon the couple is drawn into a passionate but secretive affair, carried behind closed doors at Hannah’s modest apartment, a reflection of her status as a working class tram conductor.

A literature and languages student, Michael discovers that Hannah likes to listen to his readings, and their deepening physical relationship gradually assumes another, a more socio-literary, dimension.  Alternating lusty sex with high literature, the couple, always in the nude, sits on bed, while Michael reads to her segments from a world-class literature, ranging from “The Odyssey” and “Huck Finn” to D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” and Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Little Dog,” which becomes her favorite tome.

Despite their intense bond, Hannah, who is twice as old as Michael, encourages him to socialize with boys and girls his age and social class.  And, indeed, Michael spends time with his cohorts, swimming, ball-playing, and even courting a classmate, but clearly his heart belongs somewhere else.  Suspense kicks in, when Hannah mysteriously disappears one day, and Michael is left heartbroken and confused.

The story then jumps eight years into the future to find Michael a law student under the tutorship of the enlightened professor Rohl (the great Bruno Ganz). Guiding a small clique of students, Rohl takes them to the Nazi war crime trials, where quite shockingly, Michael observes Hannah, this time as a defendant, in the courtroom, along with another group of women, who had served as guards in a concentration camp and executed innocent women.

Much like “The Hours,” the narrative of “The Reader,” scripted by playwright David Hare, is multi-layered and told in a non-linear way, with a series of illuminating flashbacks interspersed throughout the yarn.

Enter Ralph Fiennes as the mature Michael Berg, now a lawyer with a troubled marriage behind him, trying to make amends with a daughter he neglected, feeling an urge to explain to her his roots–and how he became the man that he is.

Though the film has a relatively unexplored angle, centering on the crimes of a Nazi collaborator, rather than the suffering and victimization of Jews and other minorities (gays, gypsies), once the narrative switches to the post-WWII years, it becomes too conventional.  This is particularly the case of the routine and repetitive sequences of the court trial, with the obligatory scenes of evidence and counter evidence, and one too many reaction shots of Michael as he shockingly realizes Hannah’s past as a Nazi.

Daldry also stumbles with the prison sequences, though some of them carry emotional punch due to the shifting, highly ambiguous relationship between Hannah, as an older woman sentenced to life in prison, and Michael, as a mature man, who’s conflicted with how to deal with a criminal woman, who had shaped his youthful years more than any other person.

<b>Cast</b>

Hanna Schmitz – Kate Winslet
Michael Berg – Ralph Fiennes
Young Michael Berg – David Kross
Rose Mather/Ilana Mather – Lena Olin
Professor Rohl – Bruno Ganz
Peter Berg – Matthias Habich
Carla Berg – Susanne Lothar
Marthe – Karoline Herfurth
Young Ilana
Mather – Alexandra Maria Lara
Dieter – Volker Bruch
Judge – Burghart Klaussner
Julia – Hannah Herzsprung
Sophie – Vijnessa Ferkic

<b>Credits</b>

A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.) release and presentation of a Mirage Enterprises (U.S.)/Neunte Babelsberg Film (Germany) production.
Produced by Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti, Redmond Morris. Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.
Co-producers: Henning Molfenter, Christoph Fisser, Carl Woebcken.
Co-executive producer: Jason Blum.
Directed by Stephen Daldry.
Screenplay, David Hare, based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink.
Camera: Chris Menges, Roger Deakins.
Editor: Claire Simpson.
Music: Nico Muhly.
Production designer: Brigitte Broch; supervising art director, Christian M. Goldbeck; art directors, Erwin W. Prib, Stefan Hauck, Yeshim Zolan, Anja Fromm (Cologne), Anu Schwartz (New York).
Costume designers: Ann Roth, Donna Maloney. Makeup and hair designer: Ivana Primorac.
Sound: Manfred Banach; sound designer-supervising sound editor, Blake Leyh.
Re-recording mixers: Michael Barry, Lee Dichter, Andy Kris.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 122 Minutes.