No Oscar glory for ‘The Reader’?

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When the always indomitable Scott Rudin abruptly took his name off Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Reader’ in early October after roughly 15 rounds of heavyweight tussling with Harvey Weinstein (who is releasing the movie next week), everyone assumed the worst. If Rudin were willing to abandon ship--and leave Daldry, one of his favorite filmmakers, behind, even after Weinstein had agreed to give Daldry more money so he could edit the film around the clock as he hurried it to the finish line--then the film must really be a disaster waiting to happen.

Having seen the film earlier this week, I have good news and bad news. The good: The movie is as polished and beautifully crafted as any other award season entry. The bad: It’s no best picture winner and probably a long shot even for a nomination. After watching the film, it’s pretty obvious that Rudin, who has a long, enviable track record as a producer of top-quality material, winning an Oscar earlier this year for ‘No Country for Old Men,’ must have had complicated reasons for bailing out on the film, which offers stellar performances from Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and Lena Olin, but never quite comes emotionally alive on the screen.


The picture’s biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t capture the chilling intensity of its source material, the much-heralded 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, a German writer and law professor whose book uses a late-1950s affair between a teenager and a former concentration camp guard as an entry point for a complicated moral dissection of how two different generations of Germans grappled with their country’s war guilt. This puts us into an always messy area, since my reaction, having read the book, is inevitably different from the reaction of someone coming to the film without any literary baggage.

But the largely lackluster early reaction to ‘The Reader’ doesn’t bode well for its award season hopes. I think Variety’s Todd McCarthy hit it right on the nose in his review, saying the film is ‘sensitively realized and dramatically absorbing, but comes across as an essentially cerebral experience without gut impact.’ (I think Todd deserves a little love, since just days after he posted his review of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’ saying the movie was ‘emotionally cool,’ his boss, Peter Bart, complained in his blog about critics not relating to films’ themes but to their temperature, grouching that critics have faulted films like ‘Button’ and ‘The Reader’ for being too--ahem--chilly. But I guess that comes with the territory at Variety, having your boss always second-guessing your work.)

At any rate, McCarthy is on to something. ‘The Reader’ is especially remote because we never get to see inside the soul of Hannah Schmitz, played by Winslet. As McCarthy notes, ‘her life and behavior are invariably assessed from the outside,’ but we never see how--or if--she is impacted by her emotional involvement with a youngster from a new generation, much less by a grueling public trial that finds her accused of murderous war crimes. She is chilly and remote--that’s her character, which in an odd way makes her a close cousin to Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button, who shares much of her passive reaction to tumultuous events as well as her taciturn response to loss and deprivation.

So why does ‘Button’ still work as a film while ‘The Reader’ stumbles? Keep reading:

It’s an old maxim in Hollywood that the best movies are made out of bad books. Actually, that’s an exaggeration, but it is true that the less familiarity we have with a book, the easier it is for a movie to be judged on its own merits. ‘Benjamin Button’ is an adaptation of a 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, which allows it the best of both worlds--its source material has an impeccable pedigree but has hardly been read by anyone for years, so we can fully reimagine the story without comparing it to the original text. ‘The Reader’ doesn’t have this advantage--it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, for gosh sakes, meaning it’s been read in thousands of book clubs across America (including mine), leaving it with plenty of fans but also plenty of skeptics, whose first question will be--is it as good as the book?

Oscar season is always populated with books (and plays) made into films, since it’s the very prestige of the original material that attracts A-list actors and filmmakers to the project in the first place. This year’s most-discussed award season entries include ‘Frost/Nixon’ and ‘Doubt,’ both adapted from successful theater productions, along with ‘Button,’ ‘Revolutionary Road’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ all adapted from short stories or novels. (Last year’s Oscar winner, ‘No Country for Old Men,’ was adapted from a prestigious Cormac McCarthy novel, though its performances--and the sensibility of its filmmakers, the Coen brothers--gave it a markedly different tone from the book.)

‘The Reader’ hews pretty closely to its original story, even if David Hare’s adaptation changes the chronology of events, ‘jumping through time,’ as he puts it. But most of the other new films take far more liberties with their source material. ‘Button’ simply uses the simple premise of Fitzgerald’s story and races off in a new direction, allowing David Fincher to create a classic big-screen tapestry. Hardly anyone has ever read the novel that inspired ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ so screenwriter Simon Beaufoy had the freedom to entirely reassemble the story in a more film-friendly fashion. ‘Revolutionary Road’ also edges farther away from its source, a 1961 novel by Richard Yates that is a much admired but rarely read indictment of 1950s American conformity.

So where does this leave ‘The Reader’? Somewhat high and dry. It’s extraordinarily well crafted, with a vast attention to detail, but its first half is too much kitchen-sink drama, its second half too much a series of excruciating moral dilemmas. It somehow never captures the creepy enchantment, the sheer emotional density of the novel. The picture has its moments--Ralph Fiennes plays a riveting scene with Lena Olin near the end of the picture that crackles with intensity--but the film never really gets under our skin. It’s another lesson in the aesthetic different between literature and film. In Schlink’s novel, we are inside the head of Michael Berg, the young German (played by David Kross as a boy, Fiennes as a man) who falls in love with a monster without knowing it. But the film never finds a way to portray all the emotional turbulence spinning inside his head. When we watch Fiennes, we simply see a man who is something of a stranger to himself, cut off from any attachment to the outside, much as Brad Pitt is in ‘Benjamin Button.’ What keeps ‘Button’ afloat is that is doesn’t entirely get stuck inside its own head. Even if Benjamin is a cipher, he gets to live a life, while Michael Berg’s life--especially his emotional life--is slowly taken away.

As much as I hate to question all of Peter Bart’s accumulated wisdom, the question of temperature does matter in film. As moviegoers, we resist chilly, passive characters. Books are often works of meditation, but film is a medium of action, of passion and exhilaration and despair. ‘The Reader’ is finely observed and beautifully acted, but I suspect that even if Stephen Daldry had six more years to work on the picture, he couldn’t have found a way to melt away the chill--the film simply has ice water in its veins.