So, after ‘Valkyrie’, onto the second part of tonight’s double bill of foreigners playing Germans. This time, with accents.
I came into this film with no prior real knowledge- I didn’t even know that it was set in Germany- all that I did know was that Kate Winslet was highly regarded in her role and that my friend Tony D (a fine judge of all things cultural) really liked it and was intrigued by it. I really liked it too, but the most intriguing thing for me is how it so nearly a truly great film, but sadly ends up not being. It looks beautiful- as it should with the estimable Roger Deakins on board- and the sense of time and place are rendered beautifully through the settings and costumes and the script is excellent- by turns surprising and satisfying- so everything is in place for a classic.
The plaudits I’m hearing for Reading’s finest, though, are overdoing it. She has a role that many actresses would kill for and nails it a lot of the time, but the performance is a little two-dimensional and the later scenes with Kate aged in make-up really let the performance down. She doesn’t pull off the latter-day Hannah Schmitz at all for me because she doesn’t act like an old woman in either her movement or her speech. I mentioned also that her performance is a little 2-D and this is something I wanted to comment on as a means of thinking out loud. Winslet’s performance gives no real insight into the person or her motivation, the script does- a little- in the courtroom scene, but you never see these things acted out. The character is as much a puzzle at the start as at the end because no clues are given. When it comes to portraying her embarrassment over her illiteracy, Winslet is fine, but for the tougher stuff which would really have made the performance something spectacular I found her wanting. On the other hand, Bruno Ganz and especially Lena Olin’s small cameos were of the highest calibre- especially her scene with Ralph Fiennes (who did his usual ‘credible Liam Neeson’ performance) and definitely worthy of greater scrutiny. Speaking of performances, David Kross as the young Michael really stood out- he moved from callow to embittered without missing a beat.
David Kross, however, is also one of the directorial weaknesses that held the film back. He does a fine job as Michael in 1958 and again in 1968, but the only concession to the ageing process that we see is that his fringe has grown a bit and he’s stopped wearing shorts. When he reappears again in 1976 as Ralph Fiennes, more than a little ageing has gone on. And his nose has shrunk. I’m not a big fan of make up but a little on Kross in 1968 and a prosthetic nose on Fiennes would’ve helped keep things totally plausible. In addition to this choosing Lena Olin to play a mother and her daughter is unnecessary and distracting. Small touches like this counted against the director (Stephen Daldry). I like to see a film where everything is deliberate and rationalised, but too many things in ‘The Reader’ were left unexplored, rather than unresolved. It just seemed like the director sometimes felt “I’m not spending more time on ‘that’, they’ll get the message” without ensuring that the message was properly conveyed.
What hampered the film most, though, was an intangible feeling it provoked in me. The themes explored necessitate ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean things should be left unresolved for the filmmaker. I just got the sense that Daldry didn’t really know how he felt about his characters- young Michael and the Auschwitz survivors aside. The ambiguity strikes you as possibly unintentional and so the power of the messages is lost. That’s why it’s an almost-amazing film but only rated at 7/10.