Last week I attended the first advance screening of the Miramax Film, The Reader, which opens Dec. 10, 2008, and is considered a prime candidate to sweep the Oscars next year. Producer Harvey Weinstein greeted the group of about 50 intellectuals, including writers Frank McCourt, John Guare and Bartle Bull, and introduced the film's director, Brit celebrity Stephen Daldry, director of the musical and film versions of the Broadway hit Billy Elliot.
Based on a bestselling novel, The Reader begins with Kate Winslet, as a 1950s German bus conductor, deflowering a horse-faced German lad, with lots of groaning, full nudity front and back and bathtub play. Those who have seen Winslet nude on screen before will not be disappointed, and the young male actor also flashes his wang.
Every time they have sex, the Winslet character asks the kid to read to her from the classics, Dickens, Homer, Shakespeare. Anyway, the kid grows up to be a law student (and eventually becomes Ralph Fiennes, who has a rather passive and inconsequential role) and, in 1966, his professor takes him to a trial. Who should be on trial but Kate Winslet, who it turns out was a concentration camp guard who burned 300 Jewish prisoners to death.
The evidence of the trial turns on whether Winslet wrote the report about the atrocity, and, rather than admit that she is illiterate (that's why she had the kid read to her), she confesses to writing the report and gets 20 years behind bars. Those under her get four years, all of the sentences seeming rather light.
Her grown-up boy lover thinks of saving the Winslet character, by citing her illiteracy, but stays mum. There then follows a bunch of dull scenes in which he sends the prisoner tapes and books in jail, we are all supposed to celebrate her learning how to read, and, on the day before she is to be released, the Winslet guard character hangs herself, jumping off a stack of books.
A Q&A period followed, during which the select audience fawned over director Daldry, then I put up my hand, saying, "I think this is a dishonest, manipulative film. The fact that a Nazi war criminal can read is supposed to elicit more sympathy than the Holocaust itself." Daldry sneered, "I am sorry you feel that way."
I remarked that a little-seen film like last summer's searing concentration camp epic, The Counterfeiter, would be crowded out by Daldry's treacle for a young audience with little knowledge of the facts concerning the extermination of six million Jews. Daldry airily replied, "There are 225 films about the Holocaust. There is room for mine.”
What is especially repellent about The Reader is the use of Kate Winslet's nubile body to create sympathy for a repellent character, whose triumph over illiteracy somehow mitigates unspeakable crimes that are never actually depicted on screen. One advantage of our economic woes may be a reduction of Hollywood celebrity cant. In the meantime, you have The Reader for Christmas.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).