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War Crimes of the Heart

The Reader (2008)

Melinda Sue Gordon/The Weinstein Company

Adapting any old book into a film isn't too difficult. Adapting a good book into a good film seems near impossible. Stephen Daldry's latest film, "The Reader," is no exception. Originally a sparse, straightforward and quietly brilliant book at 218 pages, the movie version of "The Reader" is over two hours long and advertises with the bombastic tagline: "Behind the mystery lies a truth that will make you question everything you know." It's a tall order; and while they certainly give it a shot, the film can't quite deliver.

To Mr. Daldry's credit, "The Reader" is absolutely beautiful to look at it, and is meticulously wrought. The plot jumps back and forth in time to follow Michael Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes and David Kross), a 15-year-old Berliner who falls in love with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in post-WWII Germany. Their paths cross again later in life, when Michael finds out about the darker parts of his lover's past, and how her secrets collide with his "second-generation" German identity. Ms. Winslet is excellent in her role as the no-nonsense, sexually confident older woman, and creates a great deal of depth in Hanna's character. While she can clearly be made to look beautiful, in "The Reader," Ms. Winslet cultivate a type of handsomeness appropriate for the role. Mr. Kross, playing the young Michael, also approaches his character with honesty and innocence, and the two have a very natural - if intergenerational - chemistry. The cinematography is beautiful, and the writing, for the most part, is tight and innovative. From a plot and style standpoint, the writing remains faithful to the book while fleshing out some of the drama to fill the screen.

Yet the film loses its way by employing the usual tricks of the trade that seem to clearly announce "Oscar fodder." Nico Muhly's score is lush and apt, but overused to the point of distraction. When every moment is punctuated with such soaring, epic music, it ends up turning into some sort of maudlin laugh track. There's no breathing room here – no time to let the audience mellow in the fine acting and complexities of the plot. There are some truly beautiful moments in the story, but they get buried by the music or forgotten because of the length. Towards the end, the audience becomes restless, despite the frequent time jumps and interweaving story lines.

With the Holocaust film, what we need are less didactics and more exploration. "The Reader" is edging closer. It adapts a now-classic book with a surprising amount of artfulness, marching bravely in a new direction before ultimately surrendering to the forces of Hollywood. In a recent New York Times article, A. O. Scott deconstructs one of the many problems of the Holocaust as a genre: "We don’t have to ask what the Holocaust means to us since the movies answer that question for us." And that is the saddest thing. Even "The Reader" – a story that delves into the nuanced lives of the perpetrators – does not require the audience to do any heavy lifting.


Opens on Dec. 10 in New York and on Jan. 2, 2009 in Britain.

Directed by Stephen Daldry; written by David Hare, based on the book by Bernhard Schlink, translated by Carol Brown Janeway; directors of photography, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins; edited by Claire Simpson; music by Nico Muhly; production designer, Brigitte Broch; produced by Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti and Redmond Morris; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Kate Winslet (Hanna Schmitz), Ralph Fiennes (Michael Berg), David Kross (Young Michael Berg), Lena Olin (Rose Mather/Ilana Mather) and Bruno Ganz (Professor Rohl).


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