May 19, 2013
Written by Jonathan Schumann
Thursday, 05 February 2009 12:13
For several years, Jonathan Schumann contributed film reviews as part of the “Take Two” father-and-sons movie reviewer team. This week, his father Mark, the “Reel Dad,” steps aside to let Jonathan take a look at a nominee for several Academy Awards.
Every year around this time, I turn into the most improbable moviegoer. All year long, even through the often overcrowded holiday movie season, I try to see all the films that garner critical praise or become hot buttons of discussion. In a perfect world, these films would be in the running for Oscar recognition, but that is seldom the case (that Rachel Getting Married’s sole chance at a win rests on Anne Hathaway’s shoulders is a crime).
But as we all know, the Oscars play from a different rule book. That’s why after the nominations are announced, you can find me in line with all the other saps to see something I would never waste time on under normal circumstances.
The Reader, Stephen Daldry’s melodrama that takes place in post-WWII Germany, exemplifies this dilemma. I had a lukewarm reaction while watching the film, but in the past few days my opinion has solidified and I’ve had trouble shaking its acrid aftertaste. The film certainly panders to the Academy’s faux-highbrow tastes. It’s painfully self-serious, dutifully photographed, and confronts a favorite theme, the specter of the Holocaust. And all while, it’s pulsing with a disposable score that, I’ve decided, is in place to keep us awake.
The story follows a dull German student who improbably conducts an illicit affair with a much older woman (Kate Winslet) in 1950s West Germany. She’s icy, controlling, and they bathe together quite a bit. The first third of the movie is spent laboriously chronicling their trysts, an exercise that is neither thought-provoking nor stimulating.
One day, Winslet’s character leaves without saying goodbye, which sends our awkward protagonist into lamentable turmoil. A few years later, he’s a law student (still awkward, still dull), who studies the case of several SS guards on trial for murder. He’s shocked and horrified to see Winslet as one of the accused. The trial and its aftermath (where our protagonist is now played by Ralph Fiennes, and yes, still dull, still awkward) investigates the legacy of the Holocaust with a club foot, and throws in illiteracy and old age makeup for good measure.
The film can’t succeed because we never get a handle on Winslet’s character. It’s meant to pivot on the tension that comes from feeling improbable sympathy for a Nazi guard, but it fails. When we first meet her, years after the war, it’s clear that she’s a damaged person, but she’s also cold, calculating, and selfish. I hate to suggest that Winslet turns in a two-dimensional portrayal, but we never get a glimmer of Hannah’s inner life. Sure, there are moments in the film’s final act that suggest insecurity and childish curiosity, but it’s not enough to add texture to her morally dubious behavior. There’s no rule that says all characters must be sympathetic; we need enough substance to complicate and engage our reaction.
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