She brings him in, cleans him up, and seduces him.

The Reader

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Whatever you expect from “The Reader,” you will most probably be surprised. Hanna (Kate Winslet) is guarding two big secrets when she befriends Michael (David Kross), a 15-year old innocent who becomes sick outside her apartment. With the utmost crispness, she brings him in, cleans him up, and seduces him. The affair will last through a summer for them, for half the movie for us, and is handled with a master’s hand by director Stephen Daldry. 

            Why was Hanna so cold when she extended a hand? At what point did she decide to seduce him with such suddenness? Before long and at Hanna’s urging, Michael is reading to her from the classics – the innocent boy and the older woman who will take him into her arms but not into her life.

            Kate Winslet and David Kross create a believable pair – a boy and a woman alternating their love of words and music and sex; Both actors soar in their delivery of a very tricky situation, and they do it early on when missteps could have ruined the film.

            What doesn’t work nearly as well is the intercutting of these scenes with scenes from the life of the grown up Michael. Michael of the glorious wide smile has grown up to be Ralph Fiennes, the sober faced, angular intellect. While intellectual growth might be natural for the former young reader, the two actors are far too different in tone to be the same person. 

            A few years later Michael, now a law student visiting a war crimes court with his mentor/professor, sees Hanna as a defendant accused of specific crimes as an SS guard as Aushwitz. Quite suddenly the audience is asked to widen its focus from the relationship to the wider question of Nazi guilt. We wonder anew how a young woman could have become part of the Holocaust. Unless, of course, she believed she was doing the right thing. And isn’t that the whole question? Who among the Nazis believed at the beginning that they were doing the right thing? And were they alive now, would they even try to examine their barbarism? 

            From the moment we learn of Hanna’s real identity, we search the details of her story for an answer to the question that bedevils everyone who thinks about it. In the movie’s most profound moment, the adult Michael asks Hanna what she has learned from her omnivorous reading of Rilke, Tolstoy, Chekov, Homer. Her answer is staggering. 

            Michael has built an unhappy life as a lawyer, husband, and father in the heavy shadow of the intensity of that early affair and the profound effects of Hanna’s trial. In a conversation much later, he is asked by a camp survivor (the wonderful Lena Olin), “Did she ever acknowledge the effect she had on your life?” The movie has taught us that the answer is “no.”


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