Tis the season. Oscar bait season, that is, when the studios line up the major releases jockeying for spots on Top Ten lists and critics groups awards on the way to the Oscar nominations in January. Unlike the superhero movies and fantasy blockbusters and comedy vehicles that are crammed into thousands of theaters in a blanket release covering the entire country, these are often launched in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles and slowly expanded into more theaters and more cities over the next couple of months (the way most movies were released, back before the era of the blockbuster changed releasing patterns forever). But to get on those lists, they are press screened to critics in major cities. Two of those films, Revolutionary Road and The Reader, have just gotten their Oscar-consideration releases (to the best of my understanding, they need to have at least a week-long theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles in the 2008 calendar to qualify for an Academy Award). These films have all the hallmarks for Oscar-bait: literary sources, “serious” themes, credentialed casts and the kinds of directors that value words over cinematic expression. While they have been racked up Golden Globe nominations, they have been conspicuously absent from major critics lists and critics groups’ awards. At their best, they are thoughtful and engaging. At their worst, they are self-important, self-conscious and stupefying.
Revolutionary Road is at the top (or, more accurately, the bottom) of the list of offenders. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directs the adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel with such exacting (and unimaginative) control that he sucks the air from the world, like vacuum sealing it in plastic and putting it on display. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a middle class couple in the late fifties, with a carefulness that nudges out all possibility of the unexpected. These are performances – and lives – lived in quotation marks. Roger Deakins (arguably the most talented cinematographer working in American cinema today) shoots the film with a perfection that is, like the performances, too well groomed. And that I lay at the feet of Mendes, whose control smothers the film in weighty importance and foreshadows every narrative development with the cinematic equivalent of a brick through a window.
Frank and April are the former dreamers who have cashed out their ambitions to settle in to live the mundane American dream of corporate anonymity and suburban conformity, putting on a game face of satisfaction to cover the emptiness and yearning that bursts forth in every argument. And there are many, which the performers uses to strip away the social masks and defensive poses of personality that their characters constantly retreat into, and then reapply like make-up in the aftermath. In those moments the actors let their control slip. Verbal articulation failing them in heated combat, they lash each other with angry accusations and stinging denunciations, focusing their disappointment and misery on one another. It’s not the words that make these scenes so powerful, however, it’s the way they seem unable to control themselves once the words start pouring out, like the dam has burst and everything inside pours out. A number of critics have pointed out that Winslet accomplishes such a raw expression of unchecked emotion that she knocks DiCaprio off balance and pushes him into places he’s never ventured as an actor. He appears not be acting but to be reacting without thought, responding in the heat of the moment, fueled by adrenaline and fear and fury.
Alas, those are the only honest moments in a film that douses every other moment of character revelation and dramatic engagement. The dialogue reveals only mundane truths where there should be conflicted emotions and unresolved dissatisfaction that even they may not be able to articulate. The cycle is performed with self-conscious deliberation and directed in capital letters and headline type. As the spats become repetitive and the characters continue to fall back into familiar patterns (his frustration erupting in chauvinistic authority and an arrogance he hasn’t earned with action, her attempt to disengage from his insistent talk exploding into vicious verbal attacks), the drama has nowhere to go and the potential punch that the revelations might have carried become little more than nudges to the audience.
Mendes frames their fumbling, impulsive attempt at rebellion against conformity and personal surrender to social expectations (and the inevitable second thoughts) with a chorus of disapproval from friends and neighbors appalled at such unconventional ideas, as if such daring is a slap in the face of the American dream as codified in fifties conformity. Their unthinkable plan to flee suburbia for a bohemian dream dares yank the band-aid off the own frustrations and unfulfilled desires of their neighbors, to show up their willing resignation to middle class mundanity out of a lack of imagination and willing compromise. Of course, the one character who understands this and isn’t shy about saying so is the crazy man on a day trip from the asylum. Michael Shannon plays the most obvious kind of literary cliché, presumptuously daring to call out hypocrisy with a singular lack of social comportment, but at least he brings a little candor and energy to the stifling atmosphere. This kind of social commentary is material that the TV show Mad Men explores with so much more subtlety and resonance and insight, without all the quotations marks and nudges and blinking neon arrows reminding us how important and weighty this all is. Dead weight.
The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours) from an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel by playwright David Hare, is less stifling but no less weighty. Kate Winslet is back, this time as a German woman, Hanna, who takes teenage boy Michael (David Kross) as a lover in late-fifties West Berlin, and then, years later, is put on trial for war crimes (she was a concentration camp guard in World War II). The boy, Michael, is a law student in Heidelberg who watches the trial as part of his special seminar, “The Question of German Guilt.” Ralph Fiennes plays Michael in the final act of the film, an emotionally withdrawn lawyer shaken by his unresolved feelings toward Hanna and his failure to act upon a truth that may have, in some small way, helped Hanna from taking the brunt of the blame at trial. The trial is more a pageant to affix some personal accountability in what is national shame of collaboration in one of the greatest crimes against humanity. It is also a microcosm of the kinds of acts perpetrated by thousands upon thousands of people who would otherwise never have committed so much as a misdemeanor.
Yes, truth and guilt and responsibility are not just themes here, they are topics of debate and we keep returning to the seminar and the courtroom to hear those debates. Michael, however, is silent on the subject, ostensibly because his emotional connection has created a terrible confusion within himself. Daldry was, like Mendes, originally a stage director, and his concern is more about acting and words than imagery, though he has Deakins create a suitably chilly atmosphere for a film about implacable characters and emotional remove. Even Bruno Ganz, as the personable seminar professor, is given little chance to let his humanity into a role that is otherwise there to raise questions for his students (and, of course, the audience). But you can hardly put all that on Daldry; Hare is the master of insulated characters who hide their emotions fro the world.
Hanna, so hard and closed in during the affair (her physical tenderness came with an emotional remove), is nakedly forthcoming about the facts of her service but just as protective of her emotional core. She recounts inhuman actions with a blank, almost childlike matter-of-factness, the idea of “just following orders” not as an excuse but as a matter of unquestioned responsibility to a job. Winslet’s performance in these scenes is unsettling and unexpected because it carries no sense of moral responsibility and no remorse. The film leaves it up to us whether it’s because she doesn’t feel remorse, or because she doesn’t dare allow herself to even consider the issue lest she is unable to live with the answer.
But as a commentary on guilt and complicity in the Holocaust, and on the shadow of national responsibility on the generation that grew up struggling with that legacy, the film is a cheat. The Reader uses the twist, the terrible secret and personal shame that Hanna hides at the cost of accepting a sentence of life in prison (Spoiler alert – she’s hiding the fact that she is illiterate) as a Maguffin of sorts. I haven’t read the novel, but (to state the obvious) movies are not novels. They strip down the verbage of conversations and the density of authorial details such as internal dialogues and thoughts and, by the nature of the medium, fill in the physicality of the world (how things look, how people behave) and the temporal experience (how long things take). In this case, that means it becomes about sex, about the spectacle of nakedness on screen, about the complications that feelings and physical contact create when it comes to “judging” someone. Not just Michael, mind you. We get caught up in his connection by proxy.
The Reader (the movie) isn’t about the Holocaust nor is it about the difficulty of the next generation of Germans to come to terms with their national history, despite the lip service. As the film follows Michael’s detective work, and his act of kindness to the imprisoned Hanna, it becomes focused on her shame and her eventual triumph, on how she has become a scapegoat of sorts – on what she wasn’t guilty of – to the neglect of what she was guilty of. It treats intimacy as justifiable grounds for reserving and perhaps even dismissing judgment for previous actions, even if they amounted to crimes against humanity. After all, she wasn’t the ONLY one guilty, and she really is far more attractive than the other women in trial who scapegoat her as punishment for her forthright confession. At the end of the film, when Michael visits Holocaust survivor and author Ilana Mather (Lena Olin), she warns of the danger of trying to justify the actions of those guilty of crimes against humanity and, with gentle grace, refuses to participate in his attempt to expiate her guilt with a donation to a Holocaust organization. Olin gives the words the power of conviction. The filmmakers didn’t heed the message. They deliver a film that asks us to feel sorry for a woman whose only crime was illiteracy and shame. The fact that she allowed dozens of Jewish women burn to death rather than risk letting them escape (because she was responsible for them) becomes just another detail by the end of the film. Her inability to register any feeling (neither regret nor justification) is a story worth pursuing. Absolving that guilt (and, by extension our guilt, in such atrocities still occurring around the world?) seems a tad misguided.