Shameful Exposure

2008-12-10 (Limited release)

Director Stephen Daldry stacks the deck in The Reader in a way that’s downright unseemly. The cinematography — courtesy of the quality-cinema tag-team of Roger Deakins and Chris Menges — alternates between sere minimalism and luscious beauty. Its core moral issues are framed in a pleasingly clearheaded fashion. Ralph Fiennes lends his tight-lipped gravitas, while Bruno Ganz balances out the steadfastness with some puckish aphorisms. It’s all quite well-calibrated, too much so. But when it comes to Kate Winslet, Daldry wisely steps out of the way and allows her to take over his movie.

Without Winslet, The Reader would be just another literary adaptation that got high on its own self-importance. Based on Bernhard Schlink’s 1997 bestseller and Oprah pick, the film turns the book’s brisk certainty into a deadly stateliness, wedging extra padding into the story’s sharp corners that soften its overall effect.

Winslet plays Hanna, a streetcar conductor in postwar Germany who takes pity on sick teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) when he vomits in front of her building, washing the kid up and walking him home. When he returns later with flowers, she seduces him as easily as one might squash a fly. Their affair is the kind that leaves scars, when she disappears without a trace, he’s devastated. Then, while watching a war-crimes trial with his law school class many years later, Michael sees Hanna again, as one of the defendants.

There have been few more perfect casting decisions than the one that put Winslet into Hanna’s rough-hewn and unromantic body. Shorn of a past and identity, Hanna seems a refugee in her own country, going about her daily business with a frightening certitude in order to stop up the crashing vulnerability that lurks in Winslet’s watchful eyes. She’s like something once broken and now held together with glue and hard work.

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader

Hanna’s calm, forceful bedding of Michael appears without sentiment until she begins to request that he read aloud to her. A snotty little bourgeoisie (as his character ages, Kross skillfully shades his performance from callow to knowledgably stricken), Michael is only too happy to show off his erudition to his working-class lover, but it’s a joy that is difficult for the viewer to take part in.

Schlink’s novel took care of this business with speedy dispatch, lingering more in Michael’s mind than it did on the externalities. Daldry and his screenwriter David Hare, however, use the opportunity to lavish the screen with sumptuous lovemaking and romantic reading sessions. Though the juxtaposition makes for a few telling moments (such as Hanna chiding Michael for reading her Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the seductress finding the book too seedy), it’s hard to take seriously.

Later on, the film puts itself on more sure footing, as Michael assesses whether he loves or hates this criminal. By handing Michael a moral quandary with no easy solution, the story nearly forces him to sympathize with the devil. Later on, when Fiennes unfortunately takes over the role of Michael (Kross’ quietude was more expressive than his successor’s patrician stiffness), the focus goes soft again, and the film would have drifted completely out of Daldry’s hands had Winslet not snapped it back to attention in the final stretches.

The closest that The Reader comes to spelling out its point comes in a short scene in which a Holocaust survivor, played with crystalline clarity by Lena Olin, counsels Michael not to go looking for answers in the camps: “People asked what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy.” It’s a chiding moment that underlines the film’s brave refusal to state its intentions. Some things, whether conflicted love, brutal crimes, or people themselves, simply cannot be understood, and to pretend they can is nothing more than a lie. In The Reader there is only the record of crimes committed and the figure of Winslet’s Hanna, forever flitting out of range.

The Reader – Trailer

The sting of moral certitude is everywhere in Doubt, though John Patrick Shanley, directing the film of Pulitzer-winning stage drama, appears to think it’s absent. A morality play set in a Catholic parish school in the Bronx, circa 1964, Doubt pits a priest with newfangled ideas against the nun who suspects him of an indiscretion. Just as Winslet waltzed away with everything that she was given in The Reader, Meryl Streep dominates Doubt with such ease that it throws into relief what a thin and unconvincing tale it ultimately is.

As Sister Beauvier, the school’s enforcer of pre-Vatican II codes, Streep is like a rod of steel encased in black robes and armed with a scalpel’s sense of wounding sarcasm. Whether watching for students needing a scare or monitoring that suspiciously liberal Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beauvier is clearly the frame holding the school together; “It’s my job to outshine the fox in cleverness.” Streep’s wicked way with Beauvier’s more pungent lines gives her an odd dignity; she makes cool disdain seem like a perfectly acceptable way of life. This is a nun who doesn’t even bow her head when all others do during Mass, she’s too busy observing. It wouldn’t come as a shock to find out she’d lost faith years before but stayed with her order simply for love of structure.

Doubt‘s dramatic crux comes when the youthful Sister James (an effusively innocent Amy Adams) tells Beauvier she suspects something between Flynn and a student, the only black kid at the school. Although Beauvier jumps on the information, and Flynn denies wrongdoing up and down, the story doesn’t give any evidence to go on, just hunches and hints. Like any good inquisitor, Beauvier relies on her instincts in lieu of evidence. To watch her go after Flynn provides the same kind of sickening thrill found in predatory nature shows. This sense of the righteous hunt is bolstered by Flynn’s arrogant preening. The priest’s assumption that he’s the bold face of openness blinds him to the fact that he’s just another cog in the patriarchal machine, reminding Beauvier of womens’ (lowly) place in the hierarchy whenever possible.

It’s not often that one says this, but Hoffman doesn’t fit the part. He’s too thoughtful an actor to pull off Flynn’s bluster. This doesn’t critically hurt the film but it certainly balances the scales too far in Streep’s favor; a problem when Shanley’s whole point was to leave audiences uneasily suspended between the two.

Like a well-crafted Playhouse 90 piece from the 1950s (one could see a young Sidney Lumet tackling this kind of thing), Doubt certainly qualifies as quality drama. But for all the air of weighty thought lurking in these dark school corridors and dreary Bronx streets, there isn’t much to grab on to here. Shanley oversells his story well before the conclusion and makes perfectly clear (as it never was in the stage play) which of the antagonists is in the right.

There is precious little doubt in Doubt.