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The Reader Is Disconnected Oscar-Bait

The Reader
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by David Hare based on the book by Bernhard Schlink
Weinstein Company, 2008

There is something to be said for movies that are so obvious in their attempt for awards, mainly because the production has a sense of phoniness about it.  Sure, actors bring their A-game to the table, but everything around it smells like pandering.  Director Stephen Daldry made one of the most insipid films of 2002 with The Hours, and this one is pretty darn close.  This year’s Most Obvious Attempt at Oscar-Baiting goes to The Reader, a movie made to have actors tug with emotion but tremendously disconnected with the plot.

It’s post-WWII Germany, and 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) is sick one day after school and finds himself in an alley of an apartment complex vomiting.  A resident named Hanna Schmitz (the always radiant Kate Winslet) takes care of him, and Michael falls in love.  To his surprise, after a couple of “thank you” visits, the much older Hanna begins to want him.  Cue nudity-filled frolics in Hanna’s studio apartment.  Michael reads to Hanna and this is his most endearing bond to Hanna, and she makes him read to her all the time.  The series of boot-knocking adventures puts a bit of a strain on Michael’s family life, which he begins to ignore, and his “just being a young, dumb kid” as he repeatedly skips out on friends to do Hanna and read to her.

One day, without warning, Hanna leaves her apartment and does not inform Michael, making him wonder where she went and why.  Now, he’s in law school in a ridiculously small class of 6, and his professor (Bruno Ganz) is taking his class to the trial of Nazi war criminals spurred on by the publishing of a book from a survivor of a concentration camp.  In this trial are six women who were guards in the SS, including Hanna.  Hanna has decided to tell the truth while her five other former guards plot against her.  A significant detail comes up during the trial that could reduce Hanna’s sentencing, but she is too embarrassed to reveal the detail, and, observing from a distance, Michael knows the secret she carries that could help her but is at a moral crossroads.

While in prison, Hanna receives audio tapes of book-readings from Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes).  Michael still seems to want to keep his distance, however, having been hurt and lied to by Hanna before, and chooses to remain out of sight.  The question becomes, will he ever forgive her?

The detail about Hanna that Michael knows is an interesting one, but it only offers a quick surprise and then basically has nothing to do with the plot from that point forward.  I classify this kind of detail as the “Luke is Leia’s brother” kind of surprise from Return of the Jedi.  A detail only meant to serve its purpose as a surprise and then have no significance to anything from that point forward.  Well, maybe it’s not that insignificant, it does serve a small purpose later, but there is no emotional weight to it.

Then, in the attempt to show how Michael’s life has been since Hanna’s disappearance, the film here botches its storytelling in meaningless episodes, a poor attempt at subtlety.  Michael still has trouble connecting with his family, and his romances since Hanna have gone predictably bad, but Michael seems to shrug these things off at every turn.  He is, in fact, pretty unlikable when it comes down to it.  His emotional distance becomes a movie downer as we are refused entry into his psyche.

Kate Winslet is her usual awesome self, but it’s kind of wasted in a film like this, which wears its emotional distance like a badge.  She’s the one who has a character who emotes, who allows us in, but it’s not enough to recommend the whole film on.

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