16 January 2009

It Was Okay

I saw The Reader yesterday and it was good.

Not very good, certainly not excellent, actually pretty close to being okay. No shame in that.

Except there is in a way. It could have been as good as it aspired to be.

The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross, is about morals, the law, reconciliation, responsibility, the Holocaust, sex, illiteracy and great literature. Huge themes. (You want a full summary see IMDb.)

Here was the problem. Like many a merely good movie it started out great and by the end petered out. It collapsed under its own weight. It bloody well tried too hard to be important. This was a film not satisfied with telling its story, it had to poke the audience in the ribs and say, "quite a powerful message, eh? Eh? See how deep a story this is?"

One of the hardest things to do in art, be it film or literature is let a story be within itself. Like an athlete, a film has to know its limitations, otherwise it makes a mess of things. In the case of film, trust in your essential story and your actors. Don't elaborate on the obvious. Resist the temptation to let the camera linger too long where it shouldn't or overplay emotions or any of the countless other ways you can make your film seem pretentious.

I remember when Seabiscuit (2003) came out a reviewer wrote, "its a movie that is self consciously in love with itself." That line helped inform the way I view movies and understand how some went wrong. Restraint is hard. Thomas McCarthy managed in The Visitor, Daldry didn't in The Reader.

Part of the problem for Daldry as it was for Fincher in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was the romance. There's a tendency in love stories to try to convince audiences that they are witnessing the greatest love affair in the history of humankind. "See, look how much these two people love each other, can you imagine a more perfect love? I think not."

This has a lot to do with the fact that when two people are in love they imagine that no one could be more in love. Another problem is that a love affair can be quite personal indeed and not something that others are comfortable watching -- even on screen. That's why you're more likely to see young pretty people like Winslet and Kross naked than two pimply fat people. It's also why we get beautifully photographed scenes of love making and montages of the couple prancing around the countryside, dancing, eating by candlelight, laughing, blah, blah, blah.

A lot of well intentioned movies just go on too long -- again, that lack of restraint, that tendency to be too self involved. This is why writers like Chekov and Hemmingway are so good. No fluff. Woody Allen and Jean-Pierre Melville are two directors that keep it short and to the point.

I'm glad the story of The Reader was taken on. Winslet was amazing and may well garner her first Oscar for this performance. Maybe another director or another screenwriter could have done a better job. Sometimes being okay is okay but when you could have been great...that's a shame.

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