Queer director excellently guides Winslet’s finest acting of 2008
If you can’t decide between a hard-hitting drama about the Holocaust aftermath and watching Kate Winslet have sex with a 15-year-old boy, you’re in luck: "The Reader" gives you both.
The sex comes first, in case you’re not into foreplay. The part about how Michael Berg (David Kross) hooks up with Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in Neustadt in 1958 is silly. What matters is that he’s soon stopping by for sex every day on his way home from school, and of course he thinks he’s in love with her.
Though very feminine in bed, Hanna is the boss and not a warm one. She questions why her boytoy wants to know her name after the third date, and continues to call him "Kid" after they’ve exchanged names. The one time they venture out in public together, people naturally assume she’s his mother — she’s well over twice his age.
Michael turns 16 and Hanna moves on. The next time he sees her is in 1966. He’s a law student in Heidelberg, and she’s a defendant in a war crimes trial. She’s one of six women who, as concentration camp guards, were responsible for 300 Jewish prisoners burning to death in a fire.
During the testimony, Hanna is the only one who admits her guilt and incriminates the others. They band against her, and she doesn’t defend herself. Suddenly bits of the past click into place for Michael and he realizes Hanna is more ashamed of something she couldn’t control.
A decade later, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes) practically invents the audiobook. Remembering how Hanna used to love it when he read his school assignments to her, he records books on cassettes and sends them to her in prison. Now he’s the one who’s impersonal. She sends him notes, but he only responds with more tapes.
"The Reader" is, as the law professor (Bruno Ganz) says at the beginning of the course, about "the question of German guilt." While that unquestionable guilt is passed down from one generation to the next, each is one step further removed from what happened.
Bernhard Schlink wrote "The Reader" as his contribution to that collective memory. David Hare adapted it for the screen and Stephen Daldry (who was out as a gay man before he married Lucy Sexton) directed it, both doing excellent work. The film is in English with mild German accents. It occasionally tells the viewer what to feel, especially when Fiennes’ blue eyes fill with tears, but it never tells you what to think.
Some will condemn Hanna for having sex with a minor even before they learn about her war crimes. But most will, like Michael, feel a certain sympathy for her without going so far as to forgive her.
Still others will lose interest 50 minutes in when the sex ends and the trial begins. For them I’ll report that Kross and Winslet are naked a lot in the early scenes, and he has one frontal shot that indicates it wasn’t cold on the set.
Of Winslet’s two lead performances this awards season, this is the stronger — and there’s no way it belongs in the supporting category, a possibility that’s been mentioned to keep her from competing against herself.
Kross’ somewhat reminiscent of a younger version of "Cabaret’s" Michael York, was worth the effort it took to teach him English and wait until he turned 18 to film the sex scenes. He’s more convincing playing younger than his age than older, but the way he lights up the screen, we’re likely to be watching him age for a long time to come.
Rating: B+ Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross
Opens: Thursday, Dec. 25 at the Magnolia • 2 hrs. 3 min. • R
DFW CRITICS GIVE ‘MILK’ SOME LOVE
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association released their list for 2008 (Due to membership restrictions, Dallas Voice critics are no longer eligible to cast ballots).
Top 10 of 2008
1. "Slumdog Millionaire"
3. "The Dark Knight"
4. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
5. "The Wrestler"
6. "The Visitor"
"Milk" was also recognized for Best Acting, Sean Penn and Best Screenplay, Dustin Lance Black. It earned some runner-up nods, too: Director, Gus Van Sant, and Supporting Actor, Josh Brolin.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 19, 2008.