Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie review: The Reader


This is one of those films where it's important to differentiate between the acting and the story. It was very well-acted. All the key players were convincing. Kate Winslet was especially good.

Here be spoilers...

The story was awful. Not badly written, just a bad story. Winslet plays Hanna, a 36-year-old woman who embarks on an affair with 15-year-old Michael. He reads to her: Homer and Chekov, Greek and Latin. They romp naked in her tiny, dingy apartment. A lot. Fair warning, there is a considerable amount of full frontal nudity and simulated sex scenes.

One day, Hanna up and disappears, shortly after learning she's up for a promotion from train conductor to office worker.

Flash-forward about seven years later and Michael is now in law school. He and a small group of students take a seminar that involves attending a war crimes trial. Michael is devastated to discover that Hanna is one of the six women on trial. She had been a guard at Auschwitz and another, smaller camp. The six women stand accused of murder for locking 300 Jewish women and girls in a church during a death march. The church was bombed and caught fire, and the guards did not let the prisoners out, instead watching as they burned to death. Hanna's five co-defendants accuse her of writing the report justifying their decision to their superiors. As Hanna hems and haws over providing a handwriting sample for comparison to the order,  Michael flashes back to his time with Hanna, and realizes that she is illiterate. Rather than admit that she can't read or write, Hanna confesses.

And here is where the movie derails. How can being illiterate be more shameful than letting 300 people burn alive? Suddenly, I was flashing back, too: to Hanna's manipulation and exploitation of young Michael. They were together three times before she even told him her name. Not once did she call him by name, she called him "kid." She kept him at an emotional distance and left him without a word. Someone that wrapped up in their own needs and desires has the level of sociopathic arrogance to think that it's better to confess to mass murder than admit that you can't read.

Hanna spends the rest of the movie manipulating Michael still further. For whatever reason, he begins to send her audiotapes of books that he'd read to her during their time together. She borrows the corresponding book from the prison library and teaches herself to read. Immediately she starts making demands. "Send romances. Are you getting my letters? Write back." Michael never responds. As her release date approaches, Michael does finds her a job and an apartment, and visits her once to let her know that he won't be sending any more tapes. Their relationship, such as it was, is over. Hanna's final act of selfishness and manipulation just reinforces my opinion of her character.

This movie made me furious.

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