As it is most often the case with films based on well-known books, people who have read Bernard Schlink’s “The Reader” won’t much like Stephen Daldry’s film. It has evident qualities, first and foremost the excellent acting by Kate Winslet who has just won a Golden Globe award for her supporting role. But it is always slightly off and misses the spirit of the book.
Scenes added, one assumes, for better understanding, don’t achieve that goal. On the contrary they trivialize the subject at hand without any useful exposition. The story—for those who have not read the book—takes place in Germany a decade or more after World War II. It describes an affair between a fifteen-year old adolescent and a thirty five-year old woman, Hannah Schmitz. The woman is brusque, unpredictable, matter-of-fact toward the adolescent who marvels at this heaven-sent initiation and, naturally enough, develops strong feelings for Hannah. That doesn’t mean that he understands her rages, her feelings for him, if any, and her sudden changes of mood.
All he knows is that she wants to be read to and then made love to. He is more than willing to indulge her in both, though soon realizing that the reading is more important to her. For her benefit, he goes through a curriculum of world literature: Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Lady with the Little Dog and more. Then one day, without warning, she goes away, leaving him bereft. A few years later, as a law student, he is taken with his class to attend the trial of former women guards at Auschwitz and recognizes Hannah as one of the defendants. Shattered by the discovery, he is also the only person in the courtroom to find out another secret, something that had been tugging at the corner of his mind. He cannot share the discovery with anyone, least of all Hannah herself, though he makes a half-hearted attempt to visit her in jail but doesn’t go through with it.
The story, as seen through Ralph Fiennes’ eyes—always quick to tear up as they have throughout his career spent channeling Peter O’Toole—misses many of the key elements of the book. Mainly, the author’s certainly difficult task of not creating any kind of sympathy for Hannah nor justifying her terrible past. The law student, though he’s horrified when he hears of this history, still sees her not as the camp guard who calmly witnessed the gassing of victims and allowed three hundred to be burned in a church but as the Hannah he knew, the one with whom he shared that strange summer, the one who called him “kid.”
Unfortunately, during the last part of the film, taking place in 1995, the mature lawyer goes through over exposition, visiting Hannah in jail, visiting one of her former victims in New York, and treating us to an absurd last five minutes—schmaltzy endings that ruin a good product are becoming the norm. Still, the French have an expression for an okay little wine. They say that “it lets itself be drunk.” As films go, “The Reader” lets itself be watched. Go see it but don’t expect any of the thought-provoking richness of the book.