Don’t let the decidedly “literary” title (i.e. “non-cinematic”) fool you: The Reader is an exquisitely imagistic film experience. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a screenplay by David Hare (the team that adapted The Hours), The Reader synthesizes gritty realism and tenebrous tenderness in translating the internationally renowned book by Bernhard Schlinkto celluloid.
On the surface, the story seems simple enough: in Berlin, 1958, a 15-year-old boy named Michael (David Kross) encounters the 32-year-old Hanna (Kate Winslet). Soon enough, the two commence a secret, sexual relationship predicated on multiple fetishes: primarily, the obvious age disparity (do the math — she’s old enough to be his mother); secondly, arising from the first fetish, the verboten aspect necessitating secrecy; and thirdly, the oral transmission of literature (she likes him to read to her before they couple). Here, the reverse-Lolita dramatic premise foregrounds an interesting western double standard: It’s somehow slightly (and only slightly) more permissible in terms of audience sympathy for an older female to take up with a far younger male, for we tend to view older men as more perverse, more corruptive sexual agents in society. Nevertheless, there’s no getting around the perversity of the premise, and much of the film’s first act deals with exculpating Hanna in the eyes of the audience from this corruption of the young Michael. (Well, if she truly loves him, and he her, then it’s sort of okay, isn’t it?) This illicit affair, however, shall turn out to be merely a peripheral sin in the overall trajectory of Hanna’s life. The majority of the film centers on Hanna’;s principal moral crime, involving events which occurred during World War II.
It is the second act of the film when, in the hands of lesser filmmakers and actors, the narrative would utterly fall apart. Despite the amazing skills of Daldry, Hare, Winslet and Kross, the narrative shift between the intimate, personal romance of the first act and the political/legal/philosophical social drama of the second act still feels, at times, forced and not quite organically evolved from the first act’s style. Make no mistake: the film story’s middle stretch is necessary — in fact, it’s the whole point of the film in the first place. By the third act, however, once the second act has finished raising all the grandly national, political and ethical questions in order to alter and/or inform our perspectives on Hanna — and once Ralph Fiennes takes up full-time portrayal of Michael — the film’s narrative style returns to the more intimate, more personal scope of the first act. Of course, issues of tone, content and scope are all but unavoidable when dealing, as the filmmakers ably do, with roughly 30 years of continuity and national/character identity formulation.
Perhaps the most masterful screenwriting tactic to be studied in The Reader is the minimalist manner in which Hare utilizes dialogue. As all the “how-to” screenwriting books are so quick to pronounce in their abstract prescriptive wisdom, because film is a visual medium, dialogue should only be used to tell that select narrative information which cannot be shown through imagery. Here, enabled surely by the marvelously emotive, textured acting and directing, Hare manifests this principle as only an expert screenwriter can.
Moreover, as revealed in one of the DVD’s bonus features, “Adapting a Timeless Masterpiece: Making The Reader,” Hare faced the considerable task of adapting for the screen a first-person book. As Hare explains his approach to this screenwriting challenge, “You’ve always got that problem of how do you invent events which express what the character is thinking without doing a dreary voiceover dirging on about what he’s thinking and feeling.” Sure enough, Hare accomplishes such narrative inventions with such seamlessness that the audience would never know The Reader was originally a first-person narrative — and with nary a cloying voiceover, at that.