This review is perhaps a prime example of exactly why I hate that the best movies of the year always tend to be released in a condensed period of a few months between November and February. This is a tough movie to review honestly while it’s still playing in cinemas; in the week, indeed, following its nomination for Best Picture and the hubbub it’s caused over it apparently taking the place of The Dark Knight or Wall•E. I’m sorry, but this is just how I need to attack this review … at the time of writing there’s just no way of writing about except in this context.
I wasn’t one of those who felt The Dark Knight deserved Oscar glory. The nearest comparison to a comic book movie getting to that stage is of course the Lord of the Rings success, and even that I felt the Academy got wrong; it should have all gone to The Two Towers. The Dark Knight is for me at the level only of Return of the King; it’s that kind of movie that, while technically perfect, even overwhelming in places, lacks a certain something … to borrow the François Truffaut quote that heads my top 250 list, it just doesn’t “vibrate” enough. I’m saying all this because I still, in spite of its deficiencies, in all honesty, would have been happier – now that I’ve seen both movies – if The Dark Knight had been nominated over this. As to Wall•E … well that certainly deserved it more in my opinion (for the record, this is not all directed at this movie – both Wall•E and The Dark Knight deserved nominations over Frost/Nixon – just watch the interview! – and this, along with a lot of other movies).
I had almost forgotten until the Philip Glass-like piano theme began over the opening credits and series of artistic shots of a breakfast being prepared (reminding me of “I’m going to make a cake …”) here that Stephen Daldry of course directed The Hours, one of those films that just happens to be on my top 250 list. I’m pushed to remember exactly what I thought of that movie the first time I saw it, and looking at the 2004 review that exists here, it’s clear that my opinion has shifted over time. I don’t see myself rushing to give this one a second chance, however.
The biggest problem here is that the relatively tiny issue it addresses is blown out of all proportion and mind-numbingly overcomplicated. There’s a scene midway, one of several cutbacks to a college lecture room where law students are discussing the case of Kate Winslet’s character, a woman who had an affair with one of the students and is now on trial for war crimes; one of the students, seeing that he has been staring at Winslet throughout the hearings, asks him, exasperated, “what is there to understand?” and for me, that pretty much nailed what I was feeling in that moment too. I found this line from the author of the novel which attempts to answer this question, or indeed the question of many viewers, “what, exactly, are you trying to say by this sympathetic portrayal of a war criminal?”
“The Reader is not a story about redemption or forgiveness. It is about how my generation of Germans came to terms with what the generation before us had done.”
I guess this is where I hit a wall with the very core of the story. I don’t view things this way. I don’t understand why anybody would need to “come to terms” with what another human being did, as though they were somehow responsible. I feel the same about parents who feel embarrassed or to blame for any bad their children do. For me it’s simple as saying: but that’s not me. It calls to mind the issue of racism and feminism and how many of the more extreme activists in those fields seem to be convinced some kind of retribution is in order, that one generation should be somehow punished for the previous one’s errors in order that the balance might be redressed. I don’t get it, I guess. Why can’t you just stop?
The high praise for Kate Winslet here baffles me almost more than it did in Revolutionary Road. It’s true there are flashes in her performance that are impressive, just as there are flashes in the film itself that cannot but move; but they’re pretty fleeting and lost in the fact that someone like Kate Winslet in a role like this is just too much of a distraction from the start. In fact, I didn’t particularly like any of the players except Ralph Fiennes and perhaps Bruno Ganz who plays the boy’s law tutor.
It’s a prestige picture, for sure. Technically, it can’t be faulted. But really, the most depressing and horrifying thing about this holocaust movie in the end is that Ricky Gervais was right in the Kate Winslet episode of “Extras”. I don’t think you can dance around this … I know I’m doing this a lot lately but I found a great quote on Wikipedia of another reviewer that again says all this better than I could. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times writes:
“You could argue that the film isn’t really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow, which is what the book insists. But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it’s about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation.”