Winslet lives up to the hype in a film rife with ambiguity
Is the top-billed star of a movie, central to most of the scenes, really a supporting actress? In the case of Kate Winslet, the answer must be “yes,” since she’s already won a Golden Globe and may well win the Oscar for her “supporting role” in The Reader.
The acclaim is deserved. She mines depths previously unexplored to create a character unique to her 25-film canon—including Revolutionary Road, whose trailer screened before The Reader, showing a Sunday-night audience in Paradise why she’s an Oscar contender (and Globe winner) for her role in that film.
In this movie, adapted from the novel Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink, Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, whom we meet in post-WWII Germany. She’s a tram conductor leading a solitary life in a studio flat in Berlin when she helps an ill lad huddled in the entrance of her apartment building. Fifteen-year-old Michael (David Kross) is smitten; 30-something Hanna is guarded, until he starts melting her iciness by reading her the books he’s studying in school.
Their intense affair spans the summer of ‘58, and their paths unexpectedly intersect a half-dozen years later when Michael, now a law student, attends a high-profile trial. One of the defendants is Hanna, and what he learns about his former lover’s past shakes him to the core.
Kross is exceptional, clearly comfortable in his skin, which director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) shows copiously. Not even 18 for most of the filming, he holds his own opposite Winslet and holds up his end of a role played in middle age by Ralph Fiennes. Both actors merit Oscar consideration, too, if anyone can figure out the category. Their Michael is the thread of the narrative, the titular character, but it’s Hanna—Winslet—who carries the film.
Exiting the theater, I felt I’d seen a classic performance and an excellent movie. I still feel that way about the performances, but less so about the picture. I still don’t quite get Hanna: her background, her choices, her cognitive disconnect. The Reader does a far better job at exploring philosophy, namely “legal” versus “moral,” than psychology.
That’s more than a quibble, yet not a flaw serious enough to undermine the masterful work of Winslet and company. It’s a film worth seeing, savoring and mulling.