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Movie reviews

By now almost all of us know about the film,and many of us have read the book on which it is based...

Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi |
March 21, 2009 12:40:49 am

The reader
CAST: Kate Winslet,Ralph Fiennes,

David Kross
Director: Stephen Daldry

By now almost all of us know about the film,and many of us have read the book on which it is based. By now,almost all of us have heard the criticism that has been sent its way: that it luxuriates in the sex scenes,that it somehow makes out illiteracy as a bigger problem than Hitler,that it hides the horrors of Holocaust behind a beautiful guard and her affair with a boy.

However,to see The Reader that way would be a mistake. The book by Bernhard Schlink doesn’t paint itself as an authoritative text on the Holocaust or adult illiteracy. It is about lives lived in secrecy,denying the truth,in guilt,and about the toll it can take: sometimes one life,often the one you love and,at times,six million inexplicable deaths.

Schlink’s book,and the film at times,tries to deal with the larger issue of guilt. As a law professor says in the film: it’s not morality that holds the society together,but law. “The question never is,is it wrong,but,is it legal.” We often ignore the first as long as it skirts the second.

Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) is damned for her silences twice (once for serving as an SS guard to 300 deaths,and the second time for not admitting that she can’t read or write). But what about the silences of those around her,of Michael (played by Kross when he is young and Fiennes later),for one,who can’t bring himself to say the truth to save her,as it would reveal his association with her? Without in any way playing down her guilt,who is to say he isn’t as guilty of affecting at least one life?

Schlink also poses larger questions about the silence of the German society,the secrets that kept many former perpetrators from being brought to account. “Everybody knew,” says one of Michael’s friends,calling the trial against Schmitz and her fellow guards a diversion to assuage some of the guilt,a consolation that something had been done.

And consider the subtext from where the film derives its title. In the affair between Hanna and Michael,one of the most important conditions is that he read out to her books,of all kinds,by all manner of writers. A woman who seems hardened by life,apparently compunction-less about getting into an affair with a boy who could be her son,really comes alive in those moments. It’s a world that has been denied to her,the only reality of her life constant before and after the camps,and she enters it with trepidation,but wonder.

Later,when she teaches herself to read in prison,through tapes Michael sends her of her favourite books read out by him,she “lets herself go”. Having lived a lie all her life,on her guard,whether punching tickets as a train conductor,making love or defending herself against charges of murder,she finally faces the truth.

However,while she makes her peace – “It doesn’t really matter what I think,what I say,” she says. “The dead will remain dead.” – can Michael ever?

When she suddenly leaves him one day,around the time he has developed interest in a girl at school,he can’t shake off the guilt that he was responsible somehow,that it’s a relationship that would have always had to remain in the shadows. When Hanna reappears at the Nazi war crimes trial,Michael can’t help feeling guilty for having known and loved her. When she is convicted,he can’t stop thinking if by telling the court the truth,he could have taken that one step towards accepting her.

Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) handles their one brief meeting in prison,40 years after that summer fling,beautifully. Hanna reaches out to Michael across the table,leans ever so slightly to hug him. He can’t. She scribbles him notes,two lines every time,as a child just learning to write would,hoping he would write back,asking him to. He doesn’t.

From the coolly efficient,in-control Hanna (who,we learn,liked taking young sick ones into her charge as an SS guard); to the tremulous,in-love Hanna (who cries at the beauty of a choir in a church,a setting of special significance to her); to the confused,resigned Hanna of the trial (trying unsuccessfully to explain to the judge why she thought she had no choice,and ending more and more in the wrong); and finally to the hopeless,hopeful Hanna in prison,Winslet is marvellous.

An equal nod to Kross,who is remarkably comfortable in his own skin – scenes of nudity have been mercilessly chopped,with dialogues in the process – and as remarkably comfortable hating himself for it.

Confessions of a shopaholic
Cast: Isla Fisher,Hugh Dancy,Joan Cusack,John Goodman Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: P J Hogan

Any story that marries Prada with journalism has to invite comparisons with Sex and the City. And believe me,Isla Fisher as “journalist” Rebecca Bloomwood,dressed to the nines and teetering on heels to serious press conferences and to work for a magazine that calls itself Successful Saving,doesn’t compare to the toe-nail of Carrie Bradshaw’s little finger.

And that’s a shame,given that the director shepherding it gave us delightful films such as Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding before.

It’s not just that the plot is merely a thin frame to hang the story of a poor girl dying to be rich and a rich boy pretending to be poor. It’s not just that the film doesn’t even make the effort to try being anything else. It’s not just that it gives Kristin Scott Thomas and Joan Cusack thankless roles. It’s not just that it has women lining up and clawing each other out at every designer sale. It’s not just that it expects people to take financial wisdom from a writer who goes by the pen-name “The Girl in the Green Scarf”,and then outs her for a 20-something airhead,particularly at a time when we are praying that’s precisely not the case.

It’s that it expects us to believe that Isla Fisher can be capable of being at the centre of all that commotion.

shalini.langer@expressindia.com

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