Jan 4, 2009

The Reader [15]

Dir: Stephen Daldry
The Reader is based on a novel, originally published in German, by a German writer. It features great German actors across several generations, so why the flaming blue hell is it in English? This question ran through my mind constantly while watching Stephen Daldry’s handsome, classy, and rather cold third film, and I don’t have a satisfactory answer for it, other than money. Audiences, as demonstrated by the continuing, dispiriting success of the endless foreign horror remakes, still don’t much like subtitles, and casting two English actors in the leading roles in The Reader, and having them and the rest of the cast speak English makes commercial sense, despite the fact that it damages the film in a wide variety of ways.

The first of these is a simple credibility gap, the choice to make the film in English introduces strange incongruities like David Kross (as the younger incarnation of Michael Berg, later played by Ralph Fiennes) reading to Kate Winslet’s Hanna Schmitz from English printings of the books he is studying in his German school, as well as English signs around the town, and English menus when Michael and Hanna go out to eat. The bigger problem is that even the most talented members of the distinguished German cast give stilted and unnatural performances as they try to wrap their tongues around an unfamiliar language and embody a character all at once. It really is sad to see the dinner scenes that Kross shares with his family as a group of German actors, including the gifted Susanne Lothar, converse in rote and unemotional English. It’s not just Lothar; Bruno Ganz suffers as Kross’ teacher, Hannah Herzsperung seems devoid of the fire she brought to Four Minutes and The Baader-Meinhof Complex and Karoline Herfurth is lost as Kross’ college girlfriend.

It’s immensely frustrating, because there is such an easy fix for this. Either get the English stars to learn German for their roles (a fairer idea, there are two of them as opposed to perhaps two dozen German actors with speaking parts) or simply cast German actors in those parts – Nina Hoss and Mortiz Bleibtreu would have been fantastic. Enough, though, of the film The Reader could and should have been, what about the film it is?

Aside from being frustrating because of the language issue there’s also a strange lack of engagement here. It’s a cold film, and even when it deals with weighty subjects like the holocaust the emotional beats are somewhat fumbled. It’s also difficult, as much as the film tries to give her three dimensions and as good as Winslet is, to ever really feel anything for Hanna. Even in the first act she’s resolutely unsympathetic, and her character only becomes less sympathetic as time goes on, and yet I think the film wants you to feel for her by the end, and it simply doesn’t work.

Kate Winslet is one of the great actresses of her generation, and even in these difficult circumstances she shines. She braves the extensive nudity, she never once asks for sympathy for Hanna, she nails the German accent, keeping it subtle enough to be real but present enough to convince and she gives a customarily brilliant performance. If she wins an Oscar for this part you could argue she deserves it just for the wordless scene in which she, finally, tells Kross that she loves him. There is also an excellent cameo, in almost the final scene for (a suddenly shockingly old looking) Lena Olin, who provides the film one of its few moments of genuine, heartfelt emotion. 18-year-old David Kross works hard, and of the German cast he comes off best, but there’s still a forced feeling to his performance, and a lack of connection because of it. Ralph Fiennes is also pretty good, his reading is beautiful, but his accent is a fleeting thing, there on the first few words of each speech, then gone again.

The Reader shows Stephen Daldry to be a director with a strong sense of camera and composition, but a patchier approach with actors, but it’s hard to really see this film being any better in other hands, given the language choice that so fatally undermines the rest of the film. I wish I could recommend The Reader wholeheartedly, and for Kate Winslet fans it remains worth catching, but it just doesn’t work as a whole.

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