Winslet pounces out ahead of the pack

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Winslet pounces out ahead of the pack

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In “The Reader,” Kate Winslet, left, plays Hanna Schmitz, who finds a much younger lover in Michael Berg (David Kross). [MovieWeb]

Whether they be on “30 Rock” or “Saturday Night Live,” cougars are prominently on the prowl. One of my favorite cultural buzzwords these days, the term refers to an older woman in a sexual relationship with a much younger man. And while cougars mostly roam the comedic side of the artistic spectrum, Kate Winslet proves she can lead the pack in more serious fashion in “The Reader.”

Here the English rose makes a full transformation by throwing herself into the role of working-class Hanna Schmitz, flawless German accent and all. She infuses every movement - from cocking an eyebrow to sealing an envelope - with emotion culled from real life’s truths.

As the gruff Hanna, Winslet dominates every aspect of her relationship with young Michael Berg (David Kross), a 15-year-old boy, in 1958 Neustadt. Even at their initial encounter, she’s the boss, roughly scrubbing vomit from Michael’s face when she finds him ill in the corridor of her building. From there, the relationship deepens as she coaches him through his first sexual encounters and later orders him to read aloud to her.

Although their May?December relationship counts as statutory rape by many legal standards, there’s an undeniable depth of emotion that bleeds through Hanna’s harsh facade of maintaining power. In one of their squabbles, she shouts to Michael: “You don’t have the power to upset me. You don’t matter enough to upset me.” Her outburst rings true in the way it puts her on the offensive, and how it taps into her young lover’s insecurities. His conciliatory reaction displays all the sensitivity of someone thoroughly outmatched: “Is it true what you said? That I don’t matter to you?”

Such interactions play in stark contrast to the couple’s tenderness, creating a fascinating, electric dynamic, especially on the part of the teenaged Kross.

Really, this relationship, a summer fling with an abrupt, unexplained ending, could be the subject of an entire film in itself. But director Stephen Daldry delivers the meat of this romance in the form of flashbacks, which means that the film returns to its starting point in 1995 Berlin, along with visits to the years in between.

By doing so, Daldry uncovers the mystery of Hanna’s fate to a young adult Michael, adding to the film further dimensions that ask questions about the roots of humanity and how ideas translate across generations.

Ralph Fiennes takes the role of the older Michael, and his performance matches Winslet’s in the gravity of each of his actions. As the film plays out, it’s tremendously moving to see how this romance of Michael’s teenage years impacts much of his adult life.

While much of the current commentary on cougars remains rooted in the here and now - that is, the sexual escapades - few accounts discuss the aftermath, especially in the long term. But The Reader takes a different, more thoughtful tilt. In this case, even the briefest affair ends up reverberating through a lifetime.

The Reader

Drama, Romance / English

124 min.

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By Hannah Bae Contributing writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]

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