I knew there were two Kate Winslet films coming out in early 2009. Revolutionary Road has gotten a lot of buzz because of "marrying" together famous Titanic co-stars Kate and Leo DiCaprio. The other film, The Reader, I knew less about. But I wasn't worried. If it showed up in Grand Rapids MI I'd go see it. I'd pay to go see Kate read a phonebook, same as I'd pay to hear Morgan Freeman read one. (grin) Just sayin'
More recently I saw part of trailer on TV which suggested there some sort of love affair between Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet -- and that everyone's surprised to find him involved in a Nazi war crimes trial.
However, a three-star review in Friday's Grand Rapids Press revealed a bit more. It's not Ralph Fiennes who is being tried for war crimes, it's Kate. And I suppose if I'd have spent any time thinking about this, or reading articles about it beforehand, I might've put two-and-two together and realized that The Reader in book form was an Oprah selection back in 1999. Or maybe not. In any event, I've not read the book.
The Reader [R]
Celebration Woodland #6, 5:15pm, $3.50
Wikipedia has a note that the original German title, Der Vorleser, refers specifically to "reading aloud". My Random-House German-English dictionary would tend to confirm this. vorlesen: to read (to); to read aloud. So why reading aloud?
The movie takes place across several time periods from 1958 to 1995. In the earlier time period a German teen boy takes ill on the streets and Kate Winslet cleans him up and sends him home, where he is diagnosed with scarlet fever. Months later, when he is better, he seeks out the woman who helped him -- and almost inexplicably they start an affair, one which intertwines sex and reading aloud from books. It ends when she suddenly leaves town. Years later as a young law student, he is part of a seminar which is taken to attend a war crimes trial and is stunned to find Kate as one of the defendants.
Some reviews and the Wikipedia articles let on what is going on, but since I didn't happen to know as I went into the movie, I shan't discuss such here either.
What I will talk about is the concept of German guilt and its effect on both the war generation and those afterwards. I've run into a number of German students, grad students and young professors who talked about endless lectures in school about collective guilt for the war and the Holocaust -- and the students want to scream "it wasn't us". This is not Trial at Nuremberg or even QB VII where the guilt is much clear cut. Or a Schindler's List about the Holocaust itself. While we see one of the camps in the 1960s, we never see any scenes filmed about the incidents in question here. So there is criticism for trying to show the perpetrators of a crime in a good light or with a good excuse.
I'm not willing to go that far. I believe that Kate's character has repeatedly found herself in a difficult situation whose origins we don't know anything about, nor do we know anything of her family or hometown. Several times I thought that she was going to get "caught" and recognized by somebody in the first half of the film, but they didn't use that rather obvious trick. Instead, the story unfolds in a sort of inevitable doomed set of dominoes. We are not served easy answers about the whole guilt thing -- and I think that's where this film's strength lies. You may suspect where things are going, but they do not directly tell you. Give credit to the viewer. Yay.
What are we to make of a woman of 36 seducing a boy of less than half her age? That she's lonely? Desperate? That he was asking for it? Inevitable mutual attraction? More of the same thing which she will eventually be confronted with? Kate's character seems inconsistent at first, but I think it all boils down to trying to have some control in one's life, when things are somewhat out of control. Had the opening been set in 1948 and 1958, we might've been subjected to the full bore chaos of post-war Germany rebuilding. But in 1958, Americans would not be thinking of the scars, both human and structurally, of war and aftermath.
Had this been a strictly American production it never would've been filmed, or if filmed, then not in this way. Which probably would mean that it would not work. As it is, some people don't like flashbacks and interveaved timelines, but I do and so I felt The Reader to be a powerful film whose meaning is something to talk about and not be handed in a simplistic Hollywood catch phrase, "In a world where..."
Kate is brilliant. Unafraid to look stern or dowdy... or old. Indeed, her old age makeup at 66 is some of the best I've seen in recent films, making her look old rather than an actor made up to look old. Yes, Benjamin Button, I'm looking at you. The R-rating is richly deserved for its European sensibilities about things such as nudity and sex, I suspect, but this is not graphic sex for graphic sex sakes -- and even writing this in case anyone needs a warning, I fear that I am doing an injustice of making too much a deal about this aspect of the film.
Overall, I think this is a thinking person's film. Naturally, of course, it is playing in exactly one theatre in Grand Rapids -- the discount Woodland Mall 'plex -- in their alternative theatre. Since it just opened yesterday, though, I will say the theatre was packed. We had to get seats up near the top of the stadium seating and this was not a tiny theatre.
Kate was originally cast in this film and then wasn't available because of Revolutionary Road. So they got Nicole Kidman, who eventually left the production before shooting any scenes because she got pregnant. I'm sorry, while I don't hate Nicole Kidman, unlike some relatives of mine, I don't think she'd work in this film.