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The Reader (2008)

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Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 124 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

I have no idea how I feel about The Reader. On one hand, I think it was a really good film, directed brilliantly with award-worthy performances from its leads. It made me think. On the other hand, there are significant flaws—but are these flaws the fault of the movie or the fault of the story itself?

Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) never expected that the nice lady who found him in an alley and delivered him to his home during his bout with Scarlet Fever would become his first—and much older—lover. But that’s what happened, and though the sexual affair between young Michael and Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) lasts only a summer, their connection continues for decades, affecting both in ways neither could anticipate.

I can’t really talk about this movie without throwing around some spoilers, so consider that your warning. Now, the first thing—Winslet is brilliant, Kross is great, too, and the two share their screen time convincingly. But here’s the thing—he’s fifteen, she’s … well, she’s very much not, and it’s just kinda icky. It’s not a love story—she’s a pedophile who goes on to be a guard at a concentration camp, where she inflicts horrible cruelties upon female prisoners, even letting a burning building full of women die rather than unlock a door. She is never a sympathetic character, no matter how much you want her to be—and that is exactly why Winslet succeeds. She keeps us engaged without making us sympathize. Hanna knows her affair is wrong, as shown when the couple encounters a Boy Scout-like troop and she eyes them guiltily, realizing her young “lover” is barely out of their age range. And during the courtroom scenes, though she fully admits to her part in the camp atrocities, she seems confused as to what else she should’ve done. None of this is overplayed for dramatics, and credit goes not only to Winslet, but also to director Stephen Daldry for the subtle moments that reveal Hanna’s emptiness. It’s one of those films that make you wonder what you would’ve done—Hanna is never justified, which creates a disconcerting, unsettled feeling.

My only real complaints with the film artistically involve Ralph Fiennes as a grown-up Michael. As a boy, and even as a twentysomething law student, Michael shows no signs of becoming the cold fish presented by Fiennes—I get he went through some things, but it’s not even like it’s the same character. Even though his “story” is supposedly what we’re viewing, I can’t imagine that the man seen telling his tale is Kross’s sweet, passionate Michael. The Lena Olin/Fiennes scene also seems contrived and thrown in as a bookend—both actors are capable of more than something this trite.

Overall, performances and directing save The Reader, but it’s not an easy watch, or an especially enjoyable one.

It's Got: Great performances, moral ambiguity, wasted Lena Olin potential.

It Needs: Something different in the form of older Michael, time for us to think about it afterwards.


An uneven movie with some great, subtle performances, The Reader has no easy answers and leaves us wondering about the borderline of moral reprehensibility.