I’ve said elsewhere that it’s hard to treat Holocaust films purely as films. The subject matter looms such a long shadow over everything that it feels impossible to take view them simply as films. That’s the very fact that a film like The Reader plays on – some might say cynically – that we’ll see past the weaknesses and be swept up in the story and its supposed significance.
The film presents itself as a traditional rites-of-passage fable as a teenager is given sexual initiation by an attractive, more experienced woman (played by Kate Winslet) in 1950s Germany. A third of the way in, the film twists into all together darker territory. The woman who seemed so distant and unknowable in the first section is found to have been complicit in Holocaust atrocities, and is now facing justice. We follow the young man’s struggle with his conscience as he seeks to decide what to do with evidence that may swing the trial more favourably for her. Years later, all parties are dealing with guilt, and the secrets they have long held dear. All the pieces are in place for a gripping and moving work.
It isn’t, though. Why? The problem lies in the film’s greatest strength – Kate Winslet’s brave and brilliant performance. She spends most of the first part of the film either naked or in her bus conductor’s uniform – all she has is the roles she plays, as a way of protecting her from exposing the depths of who she is. It’s a great performance, and utterly worthy of acclamation and award. She is, though, deliberately unknowable. Which means we never really know why she goes to bed with the teenager at all – in the end, it just feel like a contrived adolescent male fantasy played through the lens of Holocaust (and other) guilt and shame. The teenager’s in over his head – and only realises just how out of his depth he is later in life. It takes most of his life to come to terms with it – but the journey’s so spread out that it never feels like travelling with him, just teleporting from one staging post to the next.
It should be a great film, but it isn’t. Kate Winslet deserves a better film than this for such a brave and humane performance, but she doesn’t get it. There’s another great Holocaust film somewhere in here, but it’s not the film we’re given.
Shame, a real shame.