The small print translation to the big screen is remarkably empty. Directed by Stephen Daldry, The Reader pales in comparison to the source material from Bernhard Schlink. A film about a fifteen-year-old boy falling in love with an older woman harboring secrets, manages to avoid the complexity and depth of Schlink’s work. Nonetheless, riveting performances from the leads Kate Winslet as Hanna, David Cross as the younger Michael and Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael manages to instill life into the otherwise dry direction. In dealing with a subject involving the Holocaust, you know a film is lacking something vital when the most emotion we see emanates from the gratuitous sex scenes. That said the beautiful on-location cinematography by cinematographer Chris Menges compensates for the utter uncreative adaptation by playwright David Hare and the nonsensical idea to do the film in English instead of German.
As mentioned, the performances from the actors were extraordinary for one very important reason: they truly illuminated the characters from Schlink’s book. Kate Winslet’s classical beauty look–epitomized by having a bit of a fuller face and thicker frame–represents the character of Hanna well. David Cross as the younger Michael and Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael do a miraculous job of capturing the essence of a scene merely through their mannerisms and the little things they do such as fidgeting with their hands or the direction their eyes move. Even if a film is flat in all aspects, performances by great actors can enhance the project anyways. So certainly that is a redeeming quality of the film that is deserving of approbation and as such, Kate Winslet finally received her much deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Hanna.
Gratuitous sex is often castigated as detrimental to a film because by its nature, it is seen as excessively irrelevant to the overall meaning of the film. In the case of The Reader, I humbly disagree. The sex in this instance is absolutely vital to the story being told. Without the sex at the beginning of the film the middle and end become meaningless. If one wishes to fast-forward through shots of Kate Winslet’s butt and the character Michael losing his virginity to the older Hanna, they risk losing understanding of the relationship between the two. The ramifications of the secrets Hanna harbors would lack the resounding punch that they in fact do possess otherwise.
Finally, the fact that the film was shot on location by Menges gives the film an authenticity that it would otherwise have lacked had it been shot in Hollywood. Authenticity allows the watcher to be fully encapsulated into a film. Furthermore, Menges helps to bring a rather beautiful, if not poetic visual to the aforementioned sex scenes. The human body takes form as something special and awe-inspiring rather than a dirty and disgusting object for the lens. He also does a wonderful job of subtlety adding emphasis to the little things in the film that help to enhance it; such as the shot of Michael gulping after having seen a rather risqué view of Hanna’s body for the first time.
However, now one must crawl through the swamp of atrocious filmmaking. Director Stephen Daldry forgoes narration other than brief snippets in The Reader and this ultimately hinders his direction. The film becomes too disjointed between the perspectives of the two Michael’s and while not necessarily difficult to follow, it strangles the pending revelation of Hanna’s secrets. The narration was a central aspect of the source material that helped to add complexity and depth to the character of Michael as well as the overall story being told. That becomes lost in the sacrificing of much of the narration. Therefore, the adaptation feels bereft of Michael’s important introspection. For that reason, the source material—the book by Bernard Schlink—is far more compelling and riveting and leaves you with a plethora of questions about morality, ethics and love.
After the steamy chemistry that started the film and helped to accentuate the love affair developing between Michael and Hanna, thereafter the film becomes inexplicably hollow. The emotion is drained out of the piece by the court trial in my estimation. Something as highly charged as the case in the film should be wrought with intensity and emotion and yet, it comes across plain and rather routine. Playwright David Hare manages to flub up material (the Holocaust) that mostly writes itself. Perhaps it was because the source material was a resounding innovative look at the Holocaust rather than the normal melodramatic, unsubstantial Oscar-fodder that normally is released by the big studios.
The final mistake the director made was in deciding to do the film in English. While certainly the material has far-reaching implications beyond Germany, if the film is to have that air of authenticity that Menges lends it with his cinematography, it needs to be in German rather than English. Watching essentially a foreign film in English undermines the credibility of the film because there is always something lost in translation. You lose the raw feel and emotion that one can take from the film if it were spoken in German.
I would recommend this film only for people to witness the quality acting performances and the beautiful scenic shots presented by Chris Menges. If they wish to experience a film that gauges your thoughts and stays with you days after exiting the theater, don’t see this film. Instead, you’d be better off reading the source material from Bernard Schlink and gaining the insightful narration from Michael. If you’re looking to watch a film with sex and nudity, this film is also for you because it has plenty of it; you just may turn it off after thirty minutes.