10 January 2009

Review: The Reader

Genre: Drama (Historical Fiction)

So, I saw this film last weekend but have neglected write a review of it here, on A Year in Film, until now, partly because I just haven't gotten 'round to it until now but mostly because it is a bit of difficult film to judge. On one hand (i. e., the hand of filmmaking, of tight storylines, and of resolved plot points), the film seems a mess, a surefire rocket to mediocrity and other bottom-of-the-barrel, movie-reviewing politics for its lack of clear coherence, its lack of polished argument, and the overall incompleteness that shapes its every part; yet, on the other hand
(i. e., the hand of impact, of acting mettle, and of social bravery), the film is a success, a purposeful sting in the eye of films that attempt at bringing by the arrogance of their mediocre two hours closure and closedness to, not only the emotional stories of "people's" lives, but also the deeply scarring, human tragedy that was the (capital H) Holocaust. For the film does eschew any sense of the traditional (shapely) arc that conforms most stories, one that does not necessarily have a solid beginning, middle, and end but rather has a dynamism, a shift, a change of character or tenor or mood in a way that is undeniably wrought by the actions of the plot, a way that often is to the end of making a point about society or us, its people; the film instead takes instances, vignettes almost from the life of its main character, the curious-turned-reclusive Michael Berg, vignettes that are not enough to form a clear idea of his person or the true person of anyone who touches his life - not even the woman whose actions motivate the grounds of most of the action shown, Ms. Winslet's sharp but daft Hanna Schmitz - and turns those vignettes into a loosely woven portraiture or "situation tale" of how the people that enter into one's life, regardless of the nature of the impact they make, never vacate the concavities of their impressions onto one, but instead remain, ported forever by one's own memory into the stretches of time beyond even their own. Mr. Berg, Hanna Schmitz, and the daughter (played by Lena Olin), who with her mother cowrote a survivors' memoir about the time the two had spent under Nazi guard Schmitz, each bear stories that resonate with this point; and it is from such stories that the film reaches its poignancy. It seems to say by them that, like a book whose words are the indelible traces upon the shape of the cultural landscape by its author, so too is this film itself, a collective record of such stories, a trace of lives and their interwoven subcomplexities upon the shape of the landscape - your landscape, the viewer's.
However, perhaps I should emend that last statement, for the fact that is is less that the film "seems to say by [its stories]" what I have written than that the film seems to try to say such by them - only to try and, like the dissociated structure of its narrative, fall short of that ambition, which undoubtedly (to me) is its point. The dissociated structure that I've already in short detail discussed fails to leave enough for us, the viewers, to latch onto, enough for us by which to navigate its argumentative course and grab hold of each subpoint as monkey-bars on the way to the grand, over-arching reason (laid out in plain language above). In perhaps fearing to tread too deeply into the wounds and actualities of the Holocaust itself and similarly refusing to enter too deeply into a morality-v.-legality debate about the (de)meritorious nature of that occurrence's actions - moves that may have very well been deliberate to maintain a stronger focus on the (above) point of the work - the film by unfortunate result but skims the surface globally on issues all, issues which in tidier juxtapositions could have lobbied a stronger, more closely bonded case for the effects of memory. As it is now, the details that there are to link together the necessary marks in the constellation of the main point are too individual, too esoteric, and too subtle to achieve their conjunct success; and viewers with eyes, ears, and minds not as privy or acute to them as the filmmakers and the screenwriter himself - viewers who are by such criteria exceedingly likely to be the noble majority - must glance over them without even the quivering beginnings of second thoughts. ("Unlock the Mystery," indeed.)
To say that the tone and the level of acting in The Reader (i. e., tranquil, serious, understated) were at all inappropriate is a fallacy, but to say that their impact created a great film is, too, inaccurate. That The Reader was on the right track is undeniable, but that it actually got there, where it wanted and needed and should have ultimately come to be, is impossible, I, a viewer, am both careful and confident to say.

Grade: B/B-.

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