Between the lines 

Nudity and nuance consume The Reader

You don’t have to know anything about The Reader going into the movie to know that Kate Winslet’s character, Hanna, is running from something. And that it’s going to catch up with her sooner or later, whatever it is. There’s a casual urgency to her love affair with 15-year-old Michael that says—to the viewer, anyway—don’t get attached, she won’t be sticking around.

Michael doesn’t notice, of course. He’s a teenager for whom a small act of kindness from a stranger has blossomed into an after-school special that was beyond his wildest imagining just a few days earlier. He’s smitten out of his mind. Hanna seems very sophisticated to the studious Michael: She likes it when he reads aloud from the literature he’s been studying at school. Initially the sex comes first, then the reading. When Hanna one day announces a change in the order of things, it’s a few lines of Homer or Schiller or Huck Finn, then down to business. Hanna tells Michael he should be ashamed of himself for reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, despite the fact that she herself is lying in the bathtub naked with a 15-year-old. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Quills where Winslet’s character gets a maternal chastening for reading out loud a story by the Marquis de Sade. There’s a pause both times, for the sake of appearances, before each reader is asked to go on reading.

Michael takes Hanna on a “cycling holiday” (ach, so deutsch!) and we understand through an awkward moment at an outdoor café that Hanna likes to be read to for a particular and rather surprising reason. Shortly thereafter, she simply disappears from her apartment and Michael doesn’t see her again for eight years. When he does, he’s a young law student observing a trial in which she’s one of the defendants.

The romance spans roughly the first third of the movie. The plot ticks forward, but light erotica is very much front and center. It’s quite lovely, and if you’ve been nursing a crush on Winslet, The Reader comes as much a gift from the cosmos as In the Cut came to fans of Meg Ryan. Not particularly a Winslet fan, I will allow that The Reader does complete some kind of red-blooded American male business left unfinished after Titanic, the same way that In the Cut offered closure to issues left to fester in my teenage imagination by When Harry Met Sally.

So anyway, it’s in the last half or so that The Reader starts to settle out of sepia solution and assume the heft of a proper drama, as opposed to a romantic reminisce from a middle-aged lawyer. The body of The Reader is exactly that, an extended flashback framed by a more-or-less present-day story about this lawyer trying to make amends with his twentysomething daughter. Ralph Fiennes shows up as the grown-up lawyer from time to time throughout the movie, and while these largely unnecessary bookends never completely stall the unfolding reminisce, they do sort of make you wish they’d hurry up and get back to it.

It’s also in the second half of The Reader that we learn more about Winslet’s character and the trouble that’s been following her. We’re already privy to one of her secrets, and while she talks quite openly about the part of her past raked open by the prosecution, the truth she goes to the greatest lengths to conceal is the one that has already revealed itself to the viewer—if not, again, to Michael—in the course of the lovers’ cycling holiday.

Under Stephen Daldrey’s direction, The Reader gives Hanna’s criminal complicity the nuanced treatment it deserves. In movies where a mostly sympathetic character is revealed to have had a hand in some monstrous deed, the truth tends to come out like a gaseous belch from the deep. A clumsier movie would have included a flashback-within-a-flashback to show Hanna’s actions objectively, the way we are meant to understand things actually happened, to the eventual vindication of the good guys once the truth does come out. The Reader offers no such out, and it’s sobering to consider that there were hundreds of thousands of cases like Hanna’s. Forget Pauline Kael, if only Hannah Arendt were alive and reviewing movies!

The framing device takes over at the end, becoming a necessary part of how The Reader completes its story. But the real issue bookending The Reader is the grown-up lawyer, now an emotionally distant dad, trying to reach out to his daughter. Through this awkward contrivance, we gather the lawyer has the notion that recounting this story will somehow explain everything to her about his emotional inaccessibility. So it’s a framing device within a framing device, almost. The last few minutes of The Reader are like a small corner of sandwich that gets ziplocked outside of the bag. They don’t ruin the rest of the movie; you just twist them off and toss them from your mind afterwards. The rest of The Reader is hermetically sealed.

The Reader is currently screening at the Village 6.
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