‘The Reader’: Exceptional performances, rare film (IANS Film Review; Rating: ****)

March 6th, 2009 - 3:56 pm ICT by IANS  

By Subhash K. Jha
Film: “The Reader”; Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross; Directed: Stephen Daldry; Rating: ****

It’s not so much in the telling as it is in the feeling that “The Reader” scores exceptionally high points.

The layering is so lush and luminous you want to clutch the poetics of the brutal politics beneath the plot’s surface - so close to your heart there’s no room for anything but of the beautiful love story at the centre of this film.

It all starts in pre-Nazi Germany where a 15-year-old boy (David Cross) falls sick at an enigmatic, sullen and unhappy woman Hannah (Kate Winslet)’s doorstep. What follows is a story of forbidden love told with an erotic and elegiac edge that drains the taboo together of all torridity and dissolves the age barrier.

As we see the two mismatched people making love, bathing and reading together in Hannah’s austere apartment we become witness to an alliance that transcends social definitions of conventional love.

The lighting is sparse, the cinematography captures the two people in soulful but spirited silhouettes suggesting a power play that transcends sex gender and the nowness of the experience.

Nothing prepares us for what’s to follow, unless you’ve read the bestselling novel by Bernard Schlink. Mythic playwright David Hare adapts the original material into a film that speaks through its indignant silences and screams through its unspoken statements on socio-political morality.

Hannah disappears from the besotted and distraught David’s life. Years later she reappears as a Nazi criminal in a courtroom where David (now grown into a very sullen and aloof Ralph Fiennes) watches quietly as the woman he loved to death is sent away to prison for life.

As mentioned earlier, silences play a pivotal part in the proceedings. The actors and the narrative design lend a certain aura of grace to the film usually found to be absent in the saturated soundtracks and over-punctuated narrative mode in today’s cinema.

If the dignity of silence even under the most stressful circumstances comes across so forcefully it’s because Kate Winslet is that kind of an actress. She constructs an inner and outer life for Hannah which manifest themselves in every pore of her face and movement of her body, imbuing the character with enigma and doom without making her feel sorry for herself.

Hannah’s scenes in the prison as the middle-aged maritally troubled David suffers outside, are the film’s most lucid and graceful episodes. Here the power of cinema comes out and reaches us not in a rush of emotions, but the opposite.

Economy of emotional expression in a hugely melodramatic plot is not easy to achieve. “The Reader” does it.

In the closing sequences Hannah finally educates herself enough to write a letter to the ‘boy’ whom she loves. We feel her indomitable power to recuperate from life’s most vicious attacks in those delicate written lines and words that bind Hannah to the literate and literary world.

The Reader is filled with gloriously luminous moments. If one has to choose one it would have to the moment where David finally comes face to face with Hannah in prison. The extraordinary caliber of writing and performance in this sequence has to be experienced to be believed.

We don’t get a character like Hannah Schmit every day. We don’t come across an actress like Kate Winslet too often. And a film like “The Reader” is indeed a rare occurrence.

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