There is little doubt in my mind that Kate Winslet is one of Hollywood’s most talented screen gems. It was she, as much as Leo, that kept me going back to see Titanic over and over and over again. Amidst all the melodrama sinking into the sea, it was Winslet that kept the film afloat with her deep and determined yearning for a different life. How could she drown when she was already dead, just coming alive?
Winslet is also the redemptive quality in the screen adaptation of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, though her brilliant performance isn’t enough to save the film from a cold, hard death. The Reader tells the story of 16-year-old Michael Berg who has an affair with Hanna Schmitz (Winslet), an illiterate German woman twice his age. Years later as a law student, Berg encounters Schmitz in a German court where she is being tried as an SS officer for the slaughter of 300 Jews. The first half of the film is rife with sex, love and Winslet, naked and moaning. The latter part is heavy with Holocaust courtroom-drama—horrifying survivor stories, guilty Nazis squirming, public crimes brought to a public reckoning. Yet even with so provocative a subject, the film never elicits the wrenching emotional response the subject matter demands.
Perhaps Winslet is too pretty for the kind of sordid and desperate Pedophilia the film posits as “love.” In fact it isn’t until Schmitz is serving a 20-year prison sentence, her face wizened, blemished and discolored that the two lead characters even act as if they care for each other; Ralph Fiennes plays an older Berg, who sends her tapes of himself dictating her favorite novels. As young lovers, Schmitz is drawn to the boy but vulnerable in the face of his education; he is her senior when it comes to knowledge, and his real powers of seduction reside more in his ability to read than his skill with raw flesh.
Still, the chemistry between the two fizzles and their lack of emotional intimacy makes it difficult for the audience to care when they need to. As a weak and lonely Schmitz confesses to murderous crimes, there is less a feeling of betrayal and more, an air of tragedy. Intellectually, we know Schmitz has committed an egregious offense, but there is no outcry, no anguish, not even anger. A dumbfounded Berg skips class and court to brood and smoke cigarettes instead of grieving. His reaction is as passionless as Winslet’s face is terrified.
What is left isn’t much, so for those who read the book and know the ending, it comes as no surprise.