Film Review | Sunday, 08 February 2009

The personal is political

In an utterly charming and utterly disarming move - to equal if not surpass her recent award-speech blunders - Kate Winslet appeared as a highly unflattering version of herself in Ricky Gervais’ Extras. In the first episode of the sitcom, which runs on the same breed of cringe-worthy tragicomedy as the other Gervais masterpiece, The Office, Winslet confesses the real reason behind her involvement in the Holocaust drama that the titular extras are also participating in. “I’m doing it ‘cos I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar,” she admits to a shocked Ricky Gervais and Ashley Jensen. “Shindler’s bloody List…The Pianist…Oscars, comin’ out of their arse!”
Winslet’s claim that she “had forgotten” about her role in Extras is perhaps less convincing than her other excuse for taking on the role of Hanna Schmitz in Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernard Schlink‘s The Reader: the story isn’t really about the Holocaust as such.
And for the duration of the film’s initial arc, we might just be sold on the idea. We witness the early days of Micheal Berg’s (David Kross, elder incarnation played by Ralph Fiennes) affair with Hanna, which blossoms after she helps him get home after seeing him getting sick on the street, in what proves to be a rare moment of selflessness on her part. What ensues is a more or less typical but nonetheless tender sexual initiation for our protagonist, with some significant twists and turns on the way. Their relationship is a largely one-way affair, with Hanna calling the shots. Her most particular request is that Michael read to her, and the teenage student proves more than willing to indulge her in some of the highlights of Western literature following their bouts of lovemaking. One day, however, this convenient rite-of-passage is cut short, as Hanna disappears without a trace. Bereft, Michael goes on to study law and when, years later, he attends the court hearings of suspected SS guards, he finds Hanna to have been one of them.
Some (including a clearly bitter Kristin-Scott Thomas) have protested that Winslet’s ‘Best Supporting Actress’ win at the Golden Globes isn’t justified, because her role in The Reader is hardly peripheral. But it’s hard to deny that the film belongs to Michael. We follow him from the 50s through to the 80s as he struggles to make sense of how to deal with this frankly bizarre (not to mention emotionally wrenching) situation. Initially, sympathising with him is hard: he gets to fulfil one of the most airtight male fantasies of all (who wouldn’t want to be taught the ways of love by Kate Winslet?) and there doesn’t seem to be much else to him apart from a love of literature. It is only through the interjections of the present-day storyline that we can grasp at something of his character, as Fiennes doesn’t fail to deliver a generous wallop of that subdued grief he does so well. But stellar performances from the cast aren’t enough to revive this ornate-but-cold exercise in filmmaking. Daldry, applying the same sombre approach as he did in that other chronologically-hopscotching Oscar-baiter, The Hours, creates the perfect middle-class entertainment. Like Atonement, it’s the kind of film that’ll make you feel clever and conscientious while asking no effort in return, bathed as it is weighty subject matter and literary gravitas. This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its merits. The initial conceit is enough to sustain the two-hour running time, as it leaves Michael affected for life and is only complicated further. The ethical conundrums are heavy: even if it is your legal duty, should you help an SS guard? How far can guilt stretch and what must one do to sustain the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust? The refusal to paint a black-and-white picture of a Nazi official is in itself a bold move and has caused some minor controversy. But these are all intellectual pursuits, and the film barely manages to escape the confines of its original prose. The fact remains that Daldry is content to simply illustrate the novel, replacing any introspective monologues and descriptions by meaningful glances and bathing everything in a bleak, but nonetheless ‘fine’, statuesque glow.
Which is to say, The Reader’s Oscar prospects are looking bright indeed. If 2004’s offensively contrived Crash can win the Best Picture gong, then Daldry’s film - which at least manages to slide some substantial intellectual fibre to chew amid the broody imagery - should have more than a fighting chance. It’s a shame Winslet insists on appearing in po-faced dramas though. Her pre-emptive act of self-parody in the episode of Extras revealed a genius at comic-timing which is consistently going to waste.

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