January 30, 2009

The Reader: Complexity Through Ambiguity

I've been meaning to comment on the film The Reader for quite some time. It's one of those films that kicks you in the stomach. You feel the pain of it for days after. But before I pass commentary...

I read Joyce's Dubliners a month ago. Good book, the kind perfect for literary criticism though I suspect not as relevant in contemporary short-fiction. Joyce present his characters as normal folk, in normal circumstances--without pretenses. This simplicity is deceptive actually, because the reader feels lulled by the seeming lack of action and winds up glossing over certain nuances, or a careful crafted sentence that explodes with epiphany. I certainly did. But those moments when I was the perfect, captive audience, Joyce skillfully brought his complexity to light--revealed. Of course, Joyce is responsible I think for a lot of what is taken for granted in short-stories now. The ambiguous ending, the internal arc of a character, the simple but loaded gesture--all found in his works, though one could argue in rawer form.

Moving from Joyce to The Reader means taking the themes of complexity through ambiguity and placing them on the screen. Not always an easy task, though I suspect film is more suited for this. One perfect scene and all the facets it incorporates can flawlessly reveal several pages of literature--in the right hands, that is. The Reader begins with a somewhat taboo tryst between a youth and an illiterate, middle-aged woman in post WWII Germany. The first act focuses almost exclusively on this, creating what I perceive as a genuine, though complex, love between the two people. You know the woman, played by Kate Winslet, is hiding something. Her actions suggest this, though no reference is made to give credence.

By act two the proverbial bomb has been dropped--Winslet's character has Nazi affiliations. The story moves from the comfortable love affair to darker waters, the kind that warrant certain judgments to be made. What makes this film remarkable is the complete empathy given to all the characters involved. Stephen Daldry (who also directed The Hours) presents his characters as human beings capable of horrific acts, not horrific human beings who act according to their nature. And the distinction can be made (and should be). Most war films do not engage in presenting the enemy as complicated, loyal humans--especially WWII films. The enemy is this vague, oppressive shadow, a faceless wall of flesh that swallows bullets and bombs and speaks through a gaping maw of sharp teeth. Daldry rejects this--or at least draws this from the book and uses it to his advantage. He reveals the lunacy of black-and-white morality, the notion of the monster and instead injects sympathy in unlikely, but completely believable ways. The sympathy is huge, and the ending is so painful, so frighteningly lonely because the moral high ground one is normally inclined to take lies shattered at their feet.

One should note that most critics missed this about the film. They wanted the "horrors" of the holocaust, they wanted their traditional monster. The Reader never denies these things, it simply tries to add a complexity lacking in other films of similar subject matter.

In a previous post I lamented the lack of good films this year. But in the past month or so, I've managed to watch several films that make up for all the garbage. The Reader is at the top of this list.