From the trailers and movie posters, it can be easy to dismiss The Reader as just another romance where Kate Winslet is naked all over the place again. It’s not like that, at least not for the whole film. Let me explain.
The whole story is spread over thirty years, beginning in Germany in 1958, where young Michael Berg (David Kross) gets violently ill outside Hanna Schmitz’s (Kate Winslet) apartment building. She helps clean him up and guides him home in the pouring rain. After Michael is well again, he goes to thank Hanna and they begin a sexual relationship.
This is the part of the film that makes it easy to write off Winslet’s Oscar winning performance as an award for most boob-shots, but she gets so much better later in the film. The majority of her scenes with young Michael are in the nude, because their relationship is basically that Michael comes straight over after school, reads to Hanna for a while and they have sex.
Now, you might cringe and slap Hanna with some predatory label once you realize she’s in her thirties and Michael is only fifteen, but I don’t believe the relationship is based on sex to Hanna. She wants to be read to and can sense what a healthy young man like Michael will gladly take as reward. It’s an efficient trade-off. We may assume she’s taking advantage of Michael, but he’s young and enjoying himself too much to even think of that, until she’s suddenly gone.
The story then flashes forward to Michael as a young law student, sitting in and studying a war-crime trial, where Hanna is trying to defend herself. It’s at this point in the film that Winslet earns that trophy. We see where she got that German efficiency, her matter-of-fact tone and can justify a boy’s first love for some story time. When Michael realizes something that can turn the ugly trial around for Hanna, can he face her again or will he let her pay for hurting him?
The rest of the story young Michael is replaced by Ralph Fiennes and Winslet dawns a lot of makeup to create the aging Hanna. I don’t want to give anything away, so just see this film. I was honestly surprised at how intriguing it was and how much I enjoyed it. There is a lot of sex and nudity in the first hour, which is fine because it helps define the relationship and isn’t pointless, but after that the story gets exponentially better until the very end.
I know I keep going on about this, but I do believe this is Winslet’s greatest role. And Hanna is such a hard character to pin-point, you can’t simply dismiss her as a predator or good or evil or anything. There’s a part of her that is ignorant, naive or lacking in something, yet can we really let that slide? Winslet’s portrayal of this simple, yet mind-boggling woman is exactly why everyone should see The Reader.
“The notion of secrecy is central to western literature. You may say, the whole idea of character is defined by people holding specific information which for various reasons, sometimes perverse, sometimes noble, they are determined not to disclose.”