Dir. Stephen Daldrey
Each year there are a number of films which are released in the winter and marketed to make money off of the press from the awards and nominations they will receive (or fail when they don’t). In the old days they were called prestige pictures. Today there are so many of them we’ve just called the winter movie offerings Awards Season. The Reader is not just one of those films. This is a deceptively dangerous film which perpetuates male sexual fantasy structurally; had the gender roles been reversed or had this been a same-sex relationship nobody would have touched a film about a Nazi in hiding having a pedophilic relationship which scars the victim for life. It romanticizes the male voyeuristic aspect of cinema through its cinematic language which too often accompanies it; the ubiquitous Gaze, both in the relative obscuring of Winslet's physical nudity in the first half and more worrisome of her emotional nakedness in the second. And finally it sentimentalizes sexual obsession psychologically; Hannah seems more condemned for emasculating Michael and ruining his future relationships than for her crimes against humanity. And all of this is done in as a Holocaust film, with the requisite visit to Auschwitz and courtroom retellings of horrendous acts against nameless victims. This film may be technically well made, but it may also be the first Best Picture nominee that would easily fit in the Nazisploitation category. Fundamentally it is little different than a film like Isla She Wolf of the SS, or Gestapo’s Last Orgy, where young male sexual desire/anxiety, and the sexual pleasures of seeing tortured women (with the excuse of the female sexual being as torturer as well) as sex objects through the cinematic techniques of the classical editing style, is paraded around under the guise of historic reflection doing a disservice to both history and sexuality.
What is also worrisome is that Winslet gave a somewhat better performance in a far better film this year in Revolutionary Road. But here she jumps through all the Oscar hoops: Foreign accent? Check. Playing ugly? Check. Playing a Nazi? Check. Being naked? Double Check. Being an emotionally unstable woman? Check. She’s got it all wrapped up.
This isn’t Steven Daldrey’s first offense. His 2002 film The Hours was a hackneyed piece of portentous Oscar-bait. That was a banal and troublingly manipulative film (see David Edelstein’s review which goes further into that films troubling sexual undertones), but this film is far more vile because while The Hours professed some sort of earnest desire of fulfillment, The Reader is far too self-important and insular to care.
The performances by Winslet and a subdued yet spot on performance by Ralph Fiennes is really all that makes this film marginally tolerable.