Want to read my take on the big Oscar winner? Click here for my review of Slumdog Millionaire.
Also read about what I thought of the film that finally gave Kate Winslet an Oscar here in The Reader.
There’s also my thoughts on Penelope Cruz’s award winner in Vicky Cristina Barcelona here
Much more to come over the next few days, so watch this space.
An old story goes that if you throw a frog (I’ve never worked out why you would, but bear with me) into a pan of boiling water, then it will jump straight back out. By contrast, if you place said unfortunate in a pan of cold water that’s slowly heated up from below, it won’t notice, and it will slowly die. I have no idea if this is true, as I have both a shortage of frogs and shortage of inclination to test the theory. It’s meant to illustrate the way problems born of the environment we are in day by day can slowly creep up on us, and ultimately dominate us without us ever realising.
In this analogy, Revolutionary Road gives us Kate and Leo as Frank & April – their marriage is the frog, the comfort of suburban life is the slowly bubbling pan. The film has the same outsider’s penetrating eye for what’s really going on as did the same director’s American Beauty. This isn’t quite in the same league – thanks mainly to an unnecessary and poorly written ‘wise-fool’ character in the form of the son of their neighbours. He’s on day release from the local psychiatric hospital, ad predictably he’s the only one who really sees what’s going on. That aside, this is an all too telling and painfully real tale. Couples who settle into safety as soon as they have children, who dream of doing something different but who end up slowly suffocated by the expectations of everyone they know. It would be easy to dismiss this as simply depressing, but it’s more than that. This is, for some, the price of having children – using duty to them to paper over the cracks, to pretend this really is what they wanted. All the while that disappointment and disillusion has to go somewhere – and it goes on sly comments, witholding of affection and settling for calm co-existence at the price of doing the hard work that will lead to genuine break-through.
The film, then, takes this principle and spins it out to its logical (dramatised) conclusion. It’s not perfect – I’d like to have seen more on how this effects the children, who turn up so rarely that I kept forgetting about them. It is, though, to be roundly praised for it’s bravery in taking on the suburban dream so dear to this film’s target audience. I’ve heard many people say the film looks depressing and predictable – that it’s a turn off. That may be – but maybe because it’s so real. It should be required viewing for couples planning their future.
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.