Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oh, the humanity

As of this writing, I have yet to watch Rachel Getting Married, Changeling and Frozen River, so I can't say whether or not Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie and Melissa Leo deserve the Best Actress Oscar more than this year's clear favorite, the wonderfully consistent Kate Winslet, but based on my viewings of Doubt and The Reader, I actually preferred Meryl Streep in the former over Ms. Winslet in the latter. While Meryl may have benefited from superb supporting performances from her castmates, Kate, in my eyes, was simply overshadowed by her young co-star David Kross.

Kross plays Michael Berg, a boy in post-war Germany who gets swept up in a whirlwind affair with a much older woman (Winslet) hiding more than one shameful secret. Kross is thoroughly believable as a teenager discovering the joys of sex and the pains of love with a woman twice his age. During their afternoons trysts, Michael reads to Hanna from books assigned to him in school, and it's during these tender moments when the poignancy of their unseemly relationship is best felt. As tram conductor Hanna, Winslet is both stern and gentle, guarded and vulnerable, and though I wasn't blown away by her, she does demonstrate the kind of class and command usually seen in more mature actresses. And that's the kind of stuff the Academy loves rewarding with shiny gold bald man statuettes, especially if the recipient has a respectable body of work to back her up, as Winslet does (not to mention the Academy might be suffering from Meryl Streep fatigue).

But like I said, David Kross impressed me more with his performance as Michael, seeming to be able to cry on cue, conveying a multitude of battling emotions in one facial expression, and totally owning all the most heart-rending scenes: his breakdown after a lover's quarrel with Hanna, his shock when he stumbles upon the horrible secret from her past, his anguish over the fate Hanna ultimately chooses for herself. I thought Kross breathed even more soul into his Michael than the divine Ralph Fiennes did with adult Michael, which is saying a LOT.

Top-notch acting aside, The Reader is a beautiful film because its deceptively simple story is at once scandalous, sweet, stirring, and profoundly sad. The protagonists are all too human: flawed, weak, proud, but also strong, compassionate, and capable of love. And at the end of it all, the movie reminds us that the line between right and wrong, between good and evil, between innocence and guilt, is not always as clearly marked as we would need or like it to be.

(4 and a half stars, the half coming solely from the thrill I got hearing Ralph Fiennes read aloud from The Odyssey. If I could give him an Oscar for that alone I would.)


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