Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Tag: The Reader

Review of “The Reader,” One of the Best Films of 2008


“The whole idea of literature is about people holding information that, for reasons of their own—sometimes noble, sometimes not—they are determined not to disclose.” So begins the wonderfully complex plot of Stephen Daldry’s film “The Reader,” adapted from Bernard Schlink’s book by Oscar-nominated David Hare.

Michael Berg, a 15-year-old student (David Kross) gets off a tram and becomes ill in the damp narrow Berlin alley outside Hanna Schmitz’s (Kate Winslet’s) cramped upper-floor apartment. The much older woman takes pity on the poor, drenched wretching teen-ager and, after drawing a bath for him so that he can clean up from his bout of vomiting, gives him a ride home where he is ordered to bed for months for Scarlet Fever.

Michael even tells his mother about this act of compassion on the part of the strange woman and, when he recovers, he decides to thank Hanna by taking her flowers. One thing leads to another and the repressed, spooked woman—who persists in addressing Michael as “Kid”—does more than just give the handsome young man a ride home. She gives him a new passion in his life, a sexual liaison with an older women, which, he later says, lasted only for four weeks over one summer.

One day, Michael goes to see Hanna to discover that she has simply vanished. He does not see her again until  1966, when he is a law school student in Heidelberg Law School.

The Professor in the law seminar tells Michael and the 4 others in his seminar, “Societies think they operate by something called morality, but they don’t.” The professor goes on to say, “The question was never ‘Was it wrong?’ but ‘Was it legal by the laws at the time?'” He then takes his quintet of students to watch the hearings dealing with the question of German guilt in the persecution of the Jews. Michael (David Kross) is stunned to discover that one of the six defendants is his former lover, Hanna Schmitz, and, furthermore, that the other five women are  lying outright and trying to pin the blame on Hanna, in an attempt to save themselves.

There are clues throughout the film that Hanna is illiterate. She likes to have Michael read to her. (hence the film’s title).  It is reported during the trial that she used to select certain prisoners from amongst the women she was guarding and have them read to her. She cannot read a menu when she and young Michael take a bicycling holiday. She is upset when her superiors on the tram praise her stern work ethic and promote her to office work. We suspect that Hanna cannot read or write, but this becomes a sticking point during the trial, when the five other defendants say that Hanna wrote the report of a fire in a church that killed all 300 women prisoners locked within when none of the female guards, of whom Hanna was one, would unlock the doors and release the prisoners. All but one of the prisoners burned to death. The other female defendants claim that Hanna “wrote the report.” We, the audience, know that Hanna could not have written the report, and Michael Berg, sitting in the gallery, knows it, as well. However, Hanna is so intent on keeping the secret of her illiteracy that she would rather suffer a much more severe sentence than endure the shame of having the world at large know her truth. And she does. While the other 5 defendants receive only 5 years apiece, Hanna takes the fall and is sentenced to life in prison.

There are many questions along the way, questions that the main character wrestles with  that we, the audience, debate later. Did Michael remain silent to save his own skin? After all, he is an aspiring law student at this point in time, and consorting with a known Nazi might not be the best path to success in his chosen field. How would Michael explain his relationship with Hanna to others, if he reveals the knowledge that only he possesses? And is it Michael’s choice as to whether Hanna is “outed” as an illiterate or whether her secret remains hers  to keep, despite the price she may pay? How much should one woman endure simply to avoid public embarrassment at her lack of formal education?

One of the most poignant lines in the film, as Hanna is bullied and badgered into submission, is her question to the Chief Prosecutor, “What would you have done? Should I never have taken the job at Seaman’s?” It was simply wanting to work hard that turned Hanna from a normal German fraulein into a German guard who literally held the power of life and death in her hands.

Michael Berg’s law professor sums up one of the themes of the film, which is, “If people like you don’t learn from people like me, then what-the-hell is the point of anything?”

Ralph Fiennes plays the adult Michael with his usual sensitivity and intensity.  He makes a decision to honor Hanna’s desire to conceal the truth of her situation, but he begins sending her tapes, books he reads onto tapes and sends her, along with a tape recorder, to lighten her burden while incarcerated. We see Hanna begin to teach herself to read, from listening to the tapes over and over.

When Michael (Ralph Fiennes) finally sees Hanna, in prison, for the first and last time, she tells him, “It doesn’t matter what I feel. It doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead.” He says to her, “I wasn’t sure what you had learned?” And Hanna replies, “I’ve learned to read.”

The rest of what happens at the film’s climax I am still mulling over in my mind. Did Hanna—who is now quite elderly and no longer sexually desirable to the adult Michael—feel so rejected by him during their visit  that it brought about the finale? Did Hanna always plan for things to end the way they do, or was it a last-minute decision that occurred only after Michael’s visit, as they discuss her plans for a job and an apartment as she is paroled ?

The David Hare screenplay, based on the Bernard Schlink novel, is wonderful, filled with complex layer upon layer of meaning and with profound intellectual decisions that resonate. Hare is Oscar-nominated for Best Screenplay adapted from a novel.

Another thing that resonated for me was seeing the names of  the two people to whom the film was dedicated,  co-producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack,  who are both now deceased. They were two professionals who will be sorely missed.

This is a wonderful film, a thought-provoking film, a tour-de-force performance from Kate Winslet, who is nominated for Best Actress and should win. The film also has a brief cameo by Lena Olin, who portrays the sole survivor of the church fire, who is now an adult living in New York City.

If you like your films character-driven and thought-provoking, as I do,  put this one on your Must See list. If you only take your films “light,” maybe not.

Slumdog Millionaire Trumps the Others as “Rocky” Throwback at the Oscars


I’ve finally seen “The Reader,” and it is a wonderful film. It will not win the Best Picture award, in all likelihood, but it is a wonderfully layered film that treats many topics, has many messages, and delivers those messages with layer upon layer of meaning.

The lead performance by Kate Winslet as Hanna Schmitz makes her the one to beat for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards on February 22nd. Winslet has had quite a year, also appearing opposite Leonardo DeCaprio in “Revolutionary Road.”

Before discussing “The Reader” at greater length in another article, I want to make a prediction regarding the Best Picture nominees. Since the awards ceremony itself does not take place until February 22nd and today is only the first of February, you will have over 3 weeks with which to disagree (or agree) with me.

This is my preliminary prediction: “Slumdog Millionaire” will win the Oscar. It will win because it is a “feel good” film in the tradition of “Rocky” and, with the country in the shape it is in right now, a “feel good” film will trump a downer every time. Nearly all the other nominated films have sad endings.

I don’t wish to reveal the specific downbeat ending(s) of the four other films, but it is well documented that “Milk” is the story of the November 27, 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in San Francisco.

“Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt, based loosely on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, is about a man who ages backwards. “Benjamin Button” has the next-best shot at an Oscar, but it is far more likely that the film will be showered with well-deserved technical awards and ignored for the biggest prize of the night.

“Frost and Nixon” is the film adaptation of the Broadway play. Hardly light entertainment. Ron Howard’s addition of vintage film footage to the serious topic of Nixon’s Watergate guilt adds to the power of the play, just as the archival footage from   a previous Academy-Award winning documentary dealing with Harvey Milk’s assassination enriches the film “Milk.”

Another reason that “Slumdog Millionaire” will have the Academy behind it is that we will want to demonstrate to the world what an enlightened country we are and how open we are to honoring films focusing on non-American culture(s). To honor “Slumdog Millionaire’s” depiction of India’s slums will scream, “Look at us! We’re enlightened! We’re an equal opportunity film appreciation country.” This won’t be the first time we’ve honored Great Britain’s film talent (Director Danny Boyle). The Brits have made a steady practice of carrying off our top film award(s) for years, but it will be an acknowledgement to the world that we are well aware of the upsurge in the film industries of other countries.

It isn’t as though other countries haven’t had their very own thriving film industries. They have had, for years. Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden…and, of course, India’s Bollywood, just to name a few.

What will happen at this year’s Oscars in regards to the selection of the Best Picture will be, in a small way, a microcosm of what is and has been happening to the United States in so many areas, whether it is the steel industry, the automobile industry, the manufacture of clothing, the manufacture of running shoes and electronic goods, or any of a dozen industries that have tip-toed quietly away to thrive in other lands. Whether it is China, North Korea, Russia or some other less-well-known power, my prediction is that “Slumdog Millionaire’s” message of triumph over adversity and hope will trump the sad message(s) of murder, suicide, corruption at the highest levels of power, or lovers doomed by fate that the other films proclaim. (And it hasn’t escaped my attention that the DGA…Directors’ Guild of America…has selected Danny Boyle as their winner.)

This is the year that the United States elected Barack Obama the 44th President of the United States, rejecting the last 8 years of our long national nightmare and expressing our desire for hope and change.

Why should the choice of this year’s Oscar be any different or strike a dissonant chord in the message of harmony the United States has chosen for its new path in 2009?

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