More noise than signal

The Reader

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

For the most part, if there’s a film coming out, I intend to see it. As such, I’ve pretty much stopped looking up what’s coming out over the coming weeks and months, because I’ll more than likely see it anyway and there’s enough other work to be getting on with rather than read about speculation on films in the middle distance. My knowledge, then, of The Reader, was limited to the faint whisperings of the Oscar buzz. Must be good, then?

Our survey says: fat chance, Pedro. Just a heads up.

Thanks to the pointless wonders of fractured narrative, we’re introduced to an adult Michael Berg (Ralph “Obviously it’s not pronounced Rafe” Fiennes) just in time to flash back for most of the film to his adolescent form, played by David Kross, leading one to wonder what the hell the point of starting with Fiennes was. Could we please now put non-linear narratives in a sack and drown them? They are officially now out of control.

Anyway, the young Michael is doing his growing up in a post-war Germany, and to pare down a remarkably uneventful story has an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). She likes it when he reads to her, one of the many signs that anyone more observant than a Panini football sticker would be able to pick up on as relating to Hanna’s inability to read. Michael, however, is sadly constrained by narrative convenience from noticing the blindingly obvious to enable a plot point later on that’s so idiotic that I don’t think I’ll mention it.

The pair flash their flesh at each other and the audience for a while before Hanna mysteriously vanishes. Sadly, she shows up again later as a slightly older Michael, now a law student, heads off to a war crimes trial as part of his course. Shock, horror and diverse alarums when he sees Hanna in the dock as co-defendant for her role as part of the guard detail for a Nazi work cum death camp. I suppose this was supposed to prompt drama, although the navel-gazing and hand-wringing that’s ended up on screen is almost the antithesis of drama. It trundles on for a while, eventually bringing Ralph back into proceedings while in no way dragging itself above ‘tedious’ on the interest-o-meter.

Clearly, this has ever intention of being taken Seriously, the sort of Serious film that demands capitalisation of Serious. What stops me from taking it seriously is not just the comedy accents, or the unlikeable, unsympathetic characters, or the equally unlikeable, stiff performances from everyone involved, or the borderline laughability of the central relationship. It’s just that it’s so remarkably dull that I’ve no intention of thinking about any of it, let alone the more interesting concepts of national guilt that it tangentially hits upon.

The Reader is perhaps most notable for throwing up not one, but two smokescreens to distract you from exactly how dull and doltish the narrative is. Copious amounts of full frontal nudity has always been the art-house battlecry of “LOOK HOW SERIOUS I AM BEING RIGHT NOW”, and when that’s combined with the ‘complexity’ of Holocaust war-crimes, this film is so laden with serious issues that it ought to see a psychiatrist.

I say smokescreen, because both are close to irrelevant. The relationship between Hanna and Michael, in all of the timeframes covered, at best edges towards weird on occasions, but for the largest part is simply boring. Swaddling it in controversy doesn’t make it more interesting, it makes it exploitative.

The wider issue of Germany coming to terms with its past is an interesting one, but one at a complete tangent to the heart of this story, reduced to a bullet point for synopsis writers. It’d feel somewhat creepy if this were a German film with German actors, but to see a predominantly US-backed production of predominantly English actors camping around with accents that would get laughed out of an ‘Allo ‘Allo audition makes me wonder if this was really intended as a surrealist comedy.

The Reader does manage one feat, walking the fine line between ‘boring’ and ‘idiotic’, extracting the very worst qualities of both. It’s always just idiotic enough to prevent your brain from completely disregarding everything that’s going on and thinking about something more worthwhile, and it’s always boring enough that despite how daft the central relationship is it never manages to become in the slightest way interesting. It’s a remarkable achievement for director Stephen Daldry, building on his similar anti-success of The Hours.

If this gets an Oscar, we riot.