The Reader (2008) (R)

Everything about how "The Reader" billed itself was erroneous. From the revealing trailer that told everything about the story to the tagline itself—How far would you go to protect a secret?—whoever was in charge of the publicizing team should have been fired. Not only do they imply that Ralph Fiennes will have a large part by keeping his name on the poster opposite Kate Winslet, but they also deny David Kross his rightful place of recognition for the movie. That being said, "The Reader" works independently of its commercial advertising and reception.
"The Reader" opens in 1995 in Germany where we see Ralph Fiennes making breakfast and telling his lady friend, who has slept over, that he plans on meeting his daughter that night. She wishes him luck, walks out the door, and Mr. Fiennes stares out the window and see a tram rushing by. This takes him back to 1958, when he was only 15 years old.
We meet Michael Berg (David Kross and the younger counterpart to Ralph Fiennes) who is sick to his stomach. On the ride home from school, he steps outside the tram and vomits several times. As he's recovering, a woman walks by and helps him. She washes the puke off of the sidewalk and cleans him up before asking him where he lived and escorting him home. She tells him to take care of himself and then disappears.
When Michael gets home his family sees that he's sick and call a doctor—he has scarlet fever. Doctor's orders are bed rest for three months and full recovery.
When he recovers, Michael decides to find the woman who helped him. He brings her flowers and thanks her...she is an odd character, very blunt and cut-off. Michael wants to get to know her better (in more than one way) and soon an affair begins.
The first part of the movie reflects the adolescent uncaring and whimsy of the duo's romance. It's as if the film is saying that they don't know any certainly doesn't condemn their behavior.
The woman's name is Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet in an Oscar winning role) her curtness is soon replaced with other abbreviated emotions. She is a mystery to Michael, one that he is keen to figure out. Hanna enjoys having Michael read to her. He reads many epic poems and great novels; but also children's books and fluffy pieces. She devours his words...and then, she vanishes from his life. She packs up her bags and leaves him without closure.
All things must come to an end.
As Michael grows older and starts college, the movie takes a turn. It becomes about the truths of our adulthood versus the fantasy of our childhood and it's here that the movie excels.
David Kross is really good at portraying both worlds—he is distraught at the truth but still believes in what he has seen. His life becomes walking the middle line between the two ends...and it's hurting him.
"The Reader" is praised because Kate Winslet is praised and rightly so, it's a good performance. I don't think that it's the best performance ever! and I think that Winslet has done better things; but that doesn't negate the fact that she's really good here.
Yet the movie itself is good if not great because of the story it tells, a story that could be considered slight if not studied more. It's a delightfully twisted plot that ends up being quite linear and chronological. It rings true of Stephen Daldry's other works, particularly "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close".
The movie handles itself with grace and dignity, considering how many places it could have wrong.
"The Reader" has a power that is undeniable, a power that should be respected.
It's not flawless; but my, how it tried!

Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4

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