I find it odd that, in the current state of film criticism, we talk less and less about what a movie is about, and more and more about the components it is made of. We discuss ad nauseam the big stars, the budget, the special effects, the early buzz from press screenings... enough that by the time the "event" arrives, watching the movie itself almost like an afterthought. Which is why a film like 'The Reader' now seems like a breath of fresh air wafting in from out of nowhere. It is "merely" a straightforward drama, one which once would have hardly seemed noteworthy or unorthodox. A film not really buzzed about, whose story was not blogged to death on the fan sites, and despite the presence of a legitimate pedigree behind the camera, wasn't even initially major Oscar bait. Here's a rare breed in commodity-driven Hollywood -- a movie that's thought-provoking, made with great passion, and infused with mystery and ambiguity.
It's often said that the less you know about a film the better, but it is particularly true of 'The Reader.' You likely know that it contains an Oscar-winning performance by Kate Winslet, who stars as Hanna Schmitz, a German who carries on a brief affair with a 15 year-old boy in the 1950s. You also may have heard some of the controversy surrounding the explicitness of the love scenes with the boy, Michael Berg (German actor David Kross). Or that, after their brief and passionate affair ends, the story flashes forward ten years, with a framing device involving an older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) who will reunite with Hanna while she is on trial for war crimes committed when she was a concentration camp guard for the Nazis. But this is all that is needed -- 'The Reader' is a film that unfolds and has many unexpected layers, and they are best left as surprises.
I will admit right upfront that 'The Reader' is not a perfect film. I understand the argument, and the criticism, that as a "Holocaust movie" it is too myopic, and focuses misguidedly on the perpetrator rather than the decimated. It is also a film that has been called remote. Yet, I found its refusal to paint its story in broad, obvious strokes its greatest asset. Rather than chilly, I found it's ambiguity inviting. We receive just enough information about Hanna, and the decisions she will ultimately have to make under the umbrella of the SS, to if not empathize with her than at least understand her. There is also some anger that surfaces in us, as viewers, because the early love scenes are so warm and intimate that we want to recoil when the true nature of Hanna's activities are revealed to us. Rather than off-putting, however, I welcomed such challenges that 'The Reader' presented me with.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink, 'The Reader' was directed by Stephen Daldry ('Billy Elliot,' 'The Hours'). He, and his screenwriter David Hare, compress and reduce some of the more sprawling elements of the book, but the basic questions that are asked of us remain intact. What I like the most about Daldry and Hare's choices is that they continually frame every narrative device in human terms. Rather than feeling manipulative, forcing us to "like" Hanna, we are required to view the characters and events from the flawed perspective of imperfection, free of heavy-handed messages or some bland, over-reaching polemic. As much as I can admire a film like Steven Spielberg's 'Schindler's List,' even there its Jewish characters felt anonymous. Ironically, in 'The Reader,' by focusing on a single victimizer and not the masses of victims, I finally gained true insight into how such an unfathomable act as the mass annihilation of an entire race of people could be processed and executed by the human mind.
'The Reader' may now best be known, however, for the Oscar-winning performance by Winslet. Whether she is the lead, or really a supporting role, matters not. She is the heart and soul of the film -- it's truly an indelible and multifaceted performance, and sheerly in terms of naked vulnerability, absolutely brave. She is matched, too, by Kross (sorely overlooked at awards time), as well as Lena Olin in a very small but absolutely pivotal role. 'The Reader,' if arguably flawed and perhaps overly-analytical, has moments of such well-acted and handsomely-crafted power it's a film whose parts may transcend its sum. Complex, adult, and challenging, 'The Reader' is sometimes a hard movie to embrace, but one whose subject demands to be seen.
The Weinstein Co. produces a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) for 'The Reader,' and it's lovely. This is not the type of film one would usually equate with brilliant high-def, but it's hard to fault such a good-looking image.
'The Reader' has a nice, film-like look. The print is spiffy, with slight grain but no defects. The image is natural, with great depth and a very textured, detailed appearance. Close-ups, in particular, look great. Colors are warm and rich, with no bleeding or chroma noise. Fleshtones are also accurate. Unfortunately, there is a slight bit of edge enhancement which results in slightly noticeable halos around areas of sharp contrast. It's the only detriment to an otherwise very good-looking, artifact-free encode.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) is provided here. 'The Reader' doesn't offer much sonic razzle-dazzle, but what it does, it does well.
Surrounds are largely inactive. This is a dialogue-driven movie, so aside from the sparse discrete effect, there is only minor ambiance and light score bleed to fill in the rears. But dialogue is presented with great finesse -- there are many hushed tones in the film, and I never had a problem with intelligibility. Dynamics are also full-bodied, with polished highs and low-bass that's more than adequate and never intrusive. 'The Reader' sounds as good as it needs to here.
The Blu-ray and DVD of 'The Reader' share the same extras, and it's a solid if unspectacular package. I wish there was a commentary included, as well as more contextual making-of material. Still, what we do get is at least worth watching.
'The Reader' is a powerful film that tackles many complex and controversial themes. It also boasts a powerful and Oscar-worthy performance by Kate Winslet (she deserved the gold). This Blu-ray is pretty darn good, too, with sharp video and audio, and some worthwhile supplements. I'm not sure about a sight-unseen purchase of 'The Reader' -- it's hardly the kind of light comedy that inspires repeated viewings -- but it's nice to see this strong drama get such fine treatment on Blu-ray.