Wednesday 4 February 2009

Why 'The Reader' is better than 'The Wrestler'

One of the best things about cinema-going in January and February is the surge of film releases in time for voting for the Oscars. And this year my local cinema, Stratford Picturehouse, with a summertime reputation for piss-poor programming, suddenly had not one but three heavyweight films on show, all nominated for Academy Awards.

Danny Boyle's triumphant Slumdog Millionaire has received almost universally positive reviews, with good reason. I think it will win on Oscar night But it shows that, like the critic Mark Kermode’s bizarre championing of Mamma Mia! and High School Musical 3, reactions to films can be very different and very personal. Critics loved Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, a film I hated (more below) and whilst praising Kate Winslet’s performance in The Reader, have dismissed it as a shallow film with a questionable message. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian said that “under the gloss of high production value, under the sheen of hardback good taste, there is something naive and glib and meretricious. It left a very strange taste in my mouth.”

For those who haven’t seen it, The Reader is the story of Hanna, an older woman who has an affair with Michael, a fifteen year old boy, but then suddenly vanishes. Michael encounters Hanna again as a West German law student visiting a war crimes tribunal, when he discovers that Hanna was an SS guard at Auschwitz concentration camp. Michael finds out that she liked to pick "favourites" from among the prisoners to read to her, just as she had asked him to do in the midst of their affair, and that her shame at her hidden illiteracy means she is prepared to admit to writing a damning SS report rather than admit to her inability to read and write. Michael has the power to stop Hanna from receiving a life-sentence by revealing what he knows, but is unable to do so. He carries the guilt he feels for not speaking out into adulthood.

Perhaps I have misunderstood the film completely. Bradshaw criticises “the dramatic and emotional structure of the film” that “insidiously invites us to see Hanna's secret misery as a species of victimhood that, if not exactly equivalent to that of her prisoners, is certainly something to be weighed thoughtfully in the balance, and to see a guilt-free human vulnerability behind war crimes.” But that’s not the way I saw the story at all.

For me, what makes The Reader impressive is casting a likeable actress like Kate Winslet in the role of a monster who has, from start to finish, absolutely no redeeming qualities. Where a critic like Bradshaw got the idea that we are supposed to sympathise with her, I don’t know. Hanna’s embarks on her affair with Michael only after discovering that he likes to read: she manipulates him just as she has used the prisoners she previously guarded. As soon as the prospect of a promotion from tram ticket collector to an office job threatens to reveal that she is illiterate, she simply abandons Michael without a word or concern. She admits that she never thinks about the past and far from being, in Bradshaw’s words, “the only honest defendant among the guards on trial”, she is so amoral that she is the only one lacking the shame to try and lie in the dock.

Michael, I thought, was motivated not by misguided sympathy for Hanna after she is imprisoned, as Bradshaw suggests. His guilt stems from his own inability to speak out or act when he knows it is an injustice to condemn one former SS guard as worse than the others - complicity by silence that is also the burden of many who lived through the war and one that the next generation of young Germans would like to have believed they could have overcome.

The Reader is a thought-provoking film but enthusiasm for Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated film The Wrestler, meanwhile, bewilders me. The film, about a washed up former wrestling champion, has a central character who is not, as some have suggested, a loveable character. He’s a steroid-filled loser who has spent a lifetime providing staged entertainment to an audience baying for blood, who has abandoned his daughter and, when finding himself alone, tries to buy his way back into her favours but still manages to ruin everything through his narcissism. The character played by Marisa Tomei, that of an stripper with a heart of gold, is an exasperating cliché familiar from so many other, less-praised, films. And the final speech given by Rourke’s character is just awful.

But this is the film that the critics love. Unbelievable…

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