The Reader - Blu-ray Review

'less an affront, more a naked and occasionally stark emotional realism which frequently rides roughshod over peoples' feelings; just like life'

Of the 2009 Best Film nominees at The Oscars, The Reader was the only one that I didn't either see at the time or catch up on soon afterwards. Even when it was sitting next to my Blu-ray player there was a touch of reluctance to stick it in the drive and spend two hours of my life watching it. I can't explain this. Perhaps it was the presence of Kate Winslet, or the weighty material or the rather abstract poster art but something about The Reader sent warning signals to my cerebellum that this was a film screaming 'GIVE ME AN OSCAR' over and above any notions of being a good film. As is perhaps often the case with preconceptions, I am glad to report mine were wrong.

There is though, no getting away from the fact that The Reader is quite hard going at some moments. Its plot focuses on Michael Berg (David Kross) and Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) a couple who come together for a passionate love affair, despite a profound difference in age and background. Years after the affair, Michael finds himself studying the trial of Hanna at University, events that his older self (Ralph Fiennes) looks back on, trying to understand them whilst simultaneously attempting to mend the relationship with his daughter.

With the above colliding and intersecting occurences all happening in a distorted timeline which jumps from long ago past, to present, to recent past, some of The Reader can be quite challenging in its presentation and dealings of crucial, controversial and pulverisingly difficult moments. This challenge, however, is less an affront, more a naked and occasionally stark emotional realism which frequently rides roughshod over peoples' feelings; just like life. The Reader is informed and influenced by a very deliberate fatalism (which reminded me heavily of that which pervades John Le Carre's fantastic A Perfect Spy) which ensures we're not necessarily watching something relaxing here, whilst all the while being better for it and never stopping to apologise for its directness.

The brutality which Michael's emotions occasionally experience are adequately conveyed by Kross, who has the most difficult job to do, but really find their home in the excellent Fiennes. During The Reader's opening we are introduced to the fact that the older Michael may not be particularly well-adjusted on an emotional level and, although this is not expanded on until later, Fienne's subtle and measured performance really brings home the influence of an early love on a now older man. It's an almost certain fact that even if Fiennes was nominated in 2009, he would have lost to Heath Ledger in the Supporting Actor category, but it will remain another one of The Academy's infernal political mysteries how he was denied an appearance whilst Robert Downey Jnr's turn in Tropic Thunder sneaked in.

Whilst The Reader is excellent and captivating cinema, it is not without its problems. The central conceit (admittedly something the film must include from the source material) did not convince me of its importance and even though I was convinced that it was important to Hanna, it still seemed of little consequence given the situations she faces during the middle to late moments in the film. David Hare's screenplay too, whilst excellent in places, too often resorts to forcing his characters to tell us functional but absent parts of the story. Bruno Ganz' law professor is the main victim of this, inserted seemingly to only tell us how important Michael's choices are, but Kross too falls prey to it, occasionally finding himself performing the role of walking title card ('we've been together for five weeks now').

Really though, The Reader is a fantastic piece of work that almost reaches top notch. Despite its flaws, it is both gripping and challenging, a mixture that will leave you with much to ponder once its inevitable fatalism has ran its course to a fittingly low key, yet touching, final scene.

Look further...

'tough questions are those asked by Schindler’s List or Downfall or Conspiracy. In comparison, this looks like a kindergarden kid drew a nice picture of what he thought a question might look like. If you have to, shut your brain off for thirty minutes in the middle. At least then you’ll end up with a dull film containing a few inspired moments' - the m0vie blog


  1. I'm with you, I haven't brought myself to watch it yet. It is that mix of Oscar yearning and promise of dullness that I just can't quite stomach. I do want to see Winslett's performance, though. But after Revolutionary Road, how much more heart wrenching can one girl take?


  2. I know exactly what you mean and they were exactly my feelings prior to it and indeed, it is that sort of film. But equally it is a really well structured, well acted drama, with a compelling story and some great acting. I really enjoyed it and spent a long time thinking about it afterwards. Worth the effort I would say.