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The Reader

Some Kind of Monster

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Reader has been criticized as being an excessively staid (or British, if you prefer) drama about a man and woman emotionally cut off from one another by the Holocaust and its aftermath. And while I understand those criticisms -- this is a movie about people who are aloof even in the best of times, oddly impenetrable types whose passions are evident only during the time they spend together -- there is nothing tepid about the conflict raging in the soul of Michael Berg.

Michael has a secret. As a quiet, cautiously precocious 15-year old (David Kross) growing up in postwar Germany, he falls into a torrid summer fling with Hanna (Kate Winslet), a working-class beauty who seems impossibly distant until the moment she hungrily seduces him. (Even after that she remains guarded, though chinks in her emotional armor begin to appear.) Theirs is a simple affair, on the surface. Michael reads to Hanna, and she teaches him to make love, though not necessarily in that order. Before long, they fall in love.

Hanna abruptly leaves Michael at the end of the summer without so much as a word of warning, and he reluctantly goes back to the awkward business of being a teenager. Years later, they meet again under drastically different circumstances.

Michael is a law student attending the trials of Nazi war criminals. Hanna, to his horror, is sitting at the defendantís table, accused of locking hundreds of concentration-camp prisoners in a burning barn. Even there, she seems defiantly aloof, perhaps unwilling to admit or unable to understand her atrocity. The prisoners were entrusted to her, she reasons. There was a job to do.

Inspired by the well-received but controversial novel by German author Bernhard Schlink, director Stephen Daldryís unhurried and literate take on The Reader may be set against the polarizing backdrop of the Holocaust, but thatís not the focus of his film. This is a movie about coming to terms with the past and learning to forgive, even when faced with an unspeakably ugly reality.

Haunted by his lingering, lifelong passion for Hanna, yet unable to pardon her monstrous crimes, a grown-up Michael (Ralph Fiennes, his face contorted by grief) is as much a portrait of thinly masked torment as his onetime lover, whose icy exterior seems more and more like a desperate front. They discover a way to heal together that is supremely moving, but one senses there are some wounds that leave lasting scars, that some betrayals that can never be remedied.

The Reader asks tough questions: How could such astonishing evil reside in the heart of such a seemingly decent person? How can you forgive the unforgivable? Should you even try? The film offers no facile answers, only quietly forceful performances (particularly by Winslet) that make these characters and the tragedy in their lives seem achingly real.