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The Reader
by Bernhard Schlink
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Reader"

Talent and looks; looks and talent. When you've got them in as much depth and profusion as Kate Winslet does, anything you do could be award-worthy even within the same year. This year it makes her a candidate both for Best Actress in "Revolutionary Road" and for Best Supporting Actress in this off-beat character drama. Looks and talent and an incisive intellence that cuts through to you off the screen.

Putting on the garb, the mild Germanic accent and the perfect blond hairdo that exemplifies the style of the fraulein of the fifties, Winslet is nothing if not visually convincing as she makes the awkward and the unexpected perfectly viable. But, as you will see, her accomplishment here is much more than visual.

On the scale of cute meets in movies, the one between mid-30s Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) and 15-year old Michael Berg (David Kross) is on the low end. Sick to his stomach and caught in a heavy rain, Michael seeks cover in front of the entrance to an apartment building off the street in the city of Neustadt, where he proceeds to heave. Before he can fully recover, Hanna, a streetcar ticket-taker, enters the portico, takes a look at the boy with an offensive grimace, and proceeds to her apartment. But her initial disgust dissolves into helpfulness and she tends to him, takes him in and fixes him up until his stomach quiets down.

Later, when he describes the incident to his middle-class mother, she advises her son to express his thanks for the woman's kindness, which he does with a bouquet of flowers. Almost coincidentally, he reads to her from one of his books which, it seems, turns her on. Literature as aphrodisiac. Thus starts Hanna's taking the boy in as an after school reader cum lover.

Michael, a serious and intellectual lad, is more than delighted by the opportunity to satisfy his hormonal impulses with so beautiful a mentor in the ways of the flesh, while enjoying his older lover's delight in being read to, a task he embraces by selecting major literary titles from "Huckleberry Finn" to Chekhov.

Though Hanna's morality has no problem with her seductive role in the arrangement, she's horrified when the reading comes to sexual details being described in "Lady Chatterley's Lover." The reader is mystified by the reaction but before he can put it down for another book she calmly urges him to "go on."

Despite the attentions of the cutest girl in his class, he thinks of no one but Hanna. With faith in the longevity of their relationship, and some of the cocky self-assuredness that goes with it, Michael is shattered one day when he comes to the apartment and finds it empty. Hanna, despite her apparent contentment, has moved on. She is one tough lady for even the reader to "read."

More years pass and Michael, his ardor subdued, is studying law under Herr Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz) whose lessons concern how the strict logic of law differs from pretty concepts of justice or personal senses of right and wrong. To illustrate the principle, he arranges for the class to attend a real trial in which a half-dozen or so women who were SS guards in a concentration camp are being tried for their complicity in Nazi genocide.

One of the defendants is Hanna. And here we come to the moral dilemma of the story. Note, it's not about sex with an adolescent boy.

As Hanna is being accused of instigating an atrocity, Michael realizes he has information about Hanna that can refute the charge. But, in an agony of restraint because of his personal respect for his ex-lover's pride, he remains silent while she's convicted and imprisoned. It's only some years later, when he's a distinguished lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), that he thinks of a way to ameliorate Hanna's lonely fate.

The ironies are telling, and touching, affecting the cast's mining of the material for every fleck of nuance. Expressing nuance is, of course, a process that defines Winslet, whose intelligence and bearing illuminates her interpretations. Even as she maintains this puzzling woman as an emotional cipher, she makes the relationship with the boy fascinating.

You don't get very far inside her, but her constant surprises keep you very closely attached as the story evolves into unpredictable regions. You simply don't stop trying to dig deeper to understand a woman who appears to be emotionally and socially detached even when confronted by accusations. Winslet's subtle exposure of this psyche produces dramatic astonishment when her failure to defend herself the way most people would is further revelatory of a peculiar but fascinating mind.

Kross, with the entirely open personality of the two, never allows his role to descend into adolescent simplicity, suggesting the presence of a strong directorial hand on this debuting actor. Kross's bearing emphasizes the coming-of-age sensibilities of a bright young man rather than that of a goggle-eyed adolescent. But that's not to say that he doesn't express effusive enthusiasm and unalloyed involvement, which works to counterbalance the lack of it in his lover. When she finally forgives him for the sin of visiting her in the wrong way at work, he's breathless. "I can't live without you," he says. "The thought of leaving you kills me. Do you love me?"

Fiennes as the elder Berg, beside affording the film an excellent matchup in looks to Kross's, also brings a recognition and logic to the character in terms of intellect and reserve. The latter quality, however, which Fienes expresses with long, silent stares, is a bit off-putting at times. He seems to be transmitting unsounded thoughts to others, as he painfully does in an awkward played scene with Lena Olin as the mother of one of the camp victims.

The look of the film is nothing if not of the highest quality, combining the work of two cinematic masters, Roger Deakins ("Doubt") and Chris Menges ("Stop-Loss"). The unusual collaboration was caused by a break in production due to the writer's strike. Nico Muhly provided textural and atmospheric support with fresh originality in his soundtrack score.

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The Soundtrack

With two current Holocaust movies ("Good" and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas") made by the Brits in which Nazis speak English with Blighty accents, director Stephen Daldry shows them how--with well chosen actors--it should be done. Here, British (Winslet) as well as German (Kross) cast members speak English with Germanic inflection, as the residue of an accent, preserving both credibility and clarity.

Written for the screen by David Hare from Bernhard Schlink's novel (see left column, above, to obtain it), this is a story that combines elements rarely found within one framework, the unusual juxtapositions of which makes it fascinating. Seduction, underage sex, intellect, literature, war, holocaust atrocities, the handling of post-war shame, justice and the law--a one-of-a-kind mix that merits the attention of discerning audiences who will also want to see it for Winslet's subtle and sensual performance.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Kate Winslet and David Kross
The aphrodisiac of literature.

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