Should I see it?
The middle of this story holds a fascinating conflict which deserves a film. The opening and end of the film are indulgent, unnecessarily drawn out distractions from a potentially great tale. The story centers on Michael Berg (David Kross), a fifteen-year-old boy in post-World War II Germany. Berg becomes ill on his way home one day* and is helped out by an older woman, Hanna (Kate Winslet in an Oscar winning performance.) She seduces the lad and the two begin a fling. All of their grunting and fondling goes on for a while and then Hanna unexpectedly ups and leaves. Berg is dismayed that his middle-aged shag doll has run off. He carries on with his life. While studying to become a lawyer, he attends a Nazi war crimes trial. Not surprising to us, but rather shocking to Berg, is that it is Hanna who is on trial. It turns out his former lover is little more than a cold heart Nazi succubus. Berg watches the trial and makes the mental note to run full background checks on middle age women who offer themselves to him in the future. The end of the film focuses on Berg as a grown man (Ralph Fiennes). Berg is now an emotionally-awkward, snickering doofus, apparently still broken from his youthful mistake.
The trial portion is very well handled and carries the potential of a great film. There's a striking conflict played out in Berg. He has a secret about Hanna that could save her, but does he announce to the world what he has done? This holds some interesting questions about the truth, and law versus morality. The film toys with this question for roughly five minutes and lets it die on the vine. The trial itself is brief and not treated with the weight it deserves. If the film had focused more intently on the trial instead of all of the other aspects of the story, this would have been a brilliant work. As it is, director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) lingers an incredibly long time on the love affair between Berg and Hanna. While this is an important aspect of the film, Daldry ponders on their lovemaking far too long. All the audience needs to understand is that he is a virginal teen, she is an older woman. She takes his innocence and basically exchanges sex from the boy for him reading books to her (she's illiterate). Daldry takes the opportunity to show the two actors completely naked in multiple scenes and plays up the eroticism like some high-budget Skinamax flick. It gets to the point where the film is about nothing other than this kid getting laid. The relationship between the two is so focused on their sexing up one another that the emotional bond between the two is weakened. This is a fatal flaw since Berg must have a deep, and believable, emotional connection in order to explain his actions for the rest of the film. Daldry expends all of his energies with the sex scenes that the remainder of the film is devoid of any real emotional punch.
Kate Winslet won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Hanna. This once again proves that one does not need to actually provide a masterful performance to win an Oscar, one simply needs to seem like they did. Winslet's no slouch, but this performance could have been done just about anyone. Now that I consider it, it would have been a far more interesting film if it had been cast with Selma Hayek in the lead - but that would make this into an entirely different movie. Back to Winslet - she's okay in the role, not great. The other performances are solid, but also not masterful. David Kross keeps up with Winslet and shows he can act. He will probably have a good career. He manages the transition from innocent teen to jaded young adult effectively and is a good anchor for the whole production.
Overall, this film is not worth the attention and hype it has received. The Oscars were far too generous, as are most critics. This is a lopsided, and sometimes even boring film that misses its mark. On top of all of this, the relationship between a fifteen year old and an older woman is given far too much attention. I have strict rules when it comes to the portrayal of sexuality and children in film, this includes teens. David Kross may have been of age during the filming of this production, but to show him in full-frontal nudity while portraying a kid is unacceptable in my book. I don't know what the laws were in Germany in the late forties, so it may be incorrect to call Hanna a statutory rapist - but for the sake of what my point is, I will refer to her as such. She is raping a fifteen year old boy, taking his innocence; which yes, I understand is the whole point of the story. My issue is with Daldey fawning over the sex scenes. We can be told of the relationship without having to see her sagging breasts and his dangle. It is unnecessary and it is therefore pornographic in its delivery - given that he's supposed to be underage, this is a huge problem.
I don't recommend this film. It is no where near as good as others have claimed.
* - When was it agreed that every other film will not only display someone vomiting, but when it happens we have to SEE it happen. Having the character turn away after dry heaving a little isn't enough - we have to witness the projectile leap from their lips and splatter heavily on the ground. I've noticed the vomiting shot is usually found in films that are meant to be smart and serious. It is as if the filmmakers say to the audience, "See the despair of the human condition! Witness the trouble of this character's body and soul...okay, that's done, let's go look at Winslett's aged butt."
Cross Posted at Good News Film Reviews