Along with movies, I'm a bit of a sports fan. For me, it's flat out fun to discuss the merits of one player or team versus another, and to talk about things like statistics, long-term viability, things like that. I've found that particular predilection can translate over to discussing actors and actresses. For instance, I'll assert that reason Kate Winslet not only is probably the best young actress today, but she's well on her way to assuming a place in the rarefied air of great actresses, period. Consider that with her Best Actress Academy award for her work as Hanna Schmitz in The Reader, she did so on her sixth nomination. She's been nominated six times - and she's not even 35. By comparison at that age, Katherine Hepburn had one win in four nominations, and Meryl Streep had two awards in five nominations. Streep didn't get her first nomination until she was 29, and Hepburn's first nomination (and award) was when she was 27. Winslet's first was for Sense and Sensibility when she was 20. Winslet is good and, if history is any barometer, only going to get better with age. Yet while some might view her award for The Reader as long overdue, the culmination of her work, the fact remains that The Reader is excellent in and of itself.
Adapted from the Bernhard Schlink book by David Hare, and directed by Hare collaborator Stephen Daldry (The Hours), Schmitz is a toll-taker in a train in 1958 Berlin, and she runs into a teenaged boy who is ill at her door. She tends to him and makes sure he gets home, where we find the boy, named Michael (David Kross) has scarlet fever. When he recovers, he delivers flowers to her as a thank you for the care she gave him, and the two eventually have a passionate affair which lasts over a summer (he is 15, she is 36). Over the course of the relationship, he reads to her, some of the classics like "The Odyssey," but also the occasional more modern story as well. She eventually ends the affair with Michael and moves out of her flat, for reasons that Michael cannot ascertain.
Flash forward eight years to 1966. Michael is now a law student in university, where he and some classmates attend a war crimes trial for some captured SS soldiers. To Michael's surprise, one of the accused is Hanna, who we find out was a guard at Auschwitz, and one of the responsible parties for the death of several hundred Jews at a church. This provides conflict for Michael for a myriad of reasons. Michael seems to be unaware of what was done at the camps, and Hanna's actions provide a personal link to this. During the trial Hanna eventually confesses to her actions, though Michael discovers something that might actually be exculpatory on her behalf and might reduce her sentence, though he decides not to pursue it, and she's sentenced to life in prison. Flash forward to 1995. Michael is grown up (now played by Ralph Fiennes of The English Patient), and has a daughter with a woman that he's since divorced. He's a lawyer now, but many of his relationships are cold and distant. When Hanna might re-emerge into his life, he's not sure what to do or how to handle it.
The trailers seemed to portray Hanna's Nazi past and her relationship with Michael as a sort of Apt Pupil meets Last Tango in Paris sort of hybrid, but it's less about the sex or the war crimes, and more about Michael's attempt to understand what was done. One of the scenes in the trailer had Michael lashing out at a fellow student, saying "We are trying to understand!" But the feeling is less to justify the rationale for these trials, and more for Michael to try and comprehend why this woman, who was so gentle and sweet to him, could have done what she did. And Winslet portrays this effectively. Hanna wasn't a cold-blooded killer of Jews; in that era and environment, what were the alternatives? She would have been in her early 20s at the time, and apparently by herself, so what could she have done? She realizes the weight of what occurred and does take responsibility for it, something that any normal person would do, but her collaborators, ones more intelligent and calculating, are the ones who should have done the time. Michael and Hanna know this, but Hanna makes a brave step. In addition, Michael's transformation (as it relates to how he views Hanna) is also worth noting. He has many feelings for her as a boy, and sacrifices a proper summer childhood to spend as much time with her as possible. The grownup Michael views her sacrifice of proper freedom as noble, and wants to help her out as she's in prison. It goes from passion to decency, despite their extremely limited interaction. While both seemed to have moved on from the physical side of things, what they shared is very special.
From a performance standpoint, Winslet might have won the Oscar, but lost among the justifiable recognition were the performances of Fiennes and Kross. Their different approaches to Michael are well done, and considering this is Kross' first worldwide film, an excellent way to start. Daldry handles each actor exceptionally well. As this was the last film production from Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, a fitting way to go out.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The Reader arrives on Blu-ray in 1.85:1 1080p widescreen, with the Genius/Weinstein Company using the AVC MPEG-4 codec on the film. Two-time Oscar winning Director of Photography Chris Menges (The Killing Fields) and eight-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men) keep the film's look pretty flat, with a brief summer vacation with Hanna and Michael showing a little color and multi-dimensional feel. The color palette is subdued, with very little natural light in Hanna's flat or in the courtroom/jail cell, and this is reproduced accurately. Blacks are decent, but there appears to be some digital noise reduction around Michael in some of the early sequences where he first meets Hanna. It's not a distraction or anything, as The Reader looks solid.
A Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track is the main option here to go along with English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. There's not a lot for it to do, to be honest, as the film is dialogue-driven. Speaker panning is evident on scenes like when the trams come from left to right, but there's no real immersive experience that you can point to. Not only that, directional effects and subwoofer usage is minimal, if non-existent. That said, the dialogue sounds strong in the center channel and I didn't really have to adjust the volume at all, and the overall result is a quality sonic experience.
Quite a few extras grace The Reader, starting with eleven deleted scenes (42:15). Some are extended sequences, like Michael trying to find a reason for Hanna's abandonment, but one scene, where Michael hitchhikes to Auschwitz and has a discussion with what could be a former SS officer living anonymously, is very compelling and worth mentioning so that you could check it out on your own. "Adapting a Masterpiece" (23:05) is your making of look at the film, where everyone discusses their particular attraction to the source material, and the crew's thoughts of the actors and their performances (particularly Winslet's). Daldry talks about using a German film crew on the production and the benefits of using a German cast (Bruno Ganz appears on screen for a few minutes as Michael's university teacher). Daldry talks about how the Pollack and (especially) Minghella deaths impacted everyone on set, and the themes of the film are touched on as well. Schlink shares his personal reflections here too. "A Conversation with David Kross and Stephen Daldry" (9:47) doesn't start out as that, with both being interviewed individually, but they show up in one room together and Daldry asks Kross about his thoughts on the film and what his family might think of it. "The Art of Aging Hanna Schmitz" (12:50) shows Winslet in the makeup chair as she gets ready to have prosthetics put on as the elder Hanna. She cracks everyone up when she's there, which leads me to wonder out loud (to no one in particular) why she hasn't been in a good comedy film yet. "A New Voice" (4:08) examines the contributions of composer Nico Muhly for the film, while "Coming to Grips with the Past" (7:21) is an interesting look at production designer (and German) Brigitte Broch's initial reluctance in doing the film, followed by what she tried to accomplish for the production. The film's trailer (2:33) rounds the disc out.
The Reader handles topics like a passionate physical affair, the holocaust, and the feelings surrounding it by those who were in and outside of the SS with amazing balance. It's a powerful look at what happened by those who could not experience it for themselves, and a young boy's attachment to a woman who was partly responsible for it is fascinating to experience. The performances are all excellent and don't worry, Winslet's Oscar is more than deserved here. The disc isn't reference quality from a technical perspective but creatively, is very enthralling and worthy of your time and exploration.