Both The Reader and Doubt feature lead characters that either are or probably are having sex with underage boys. If you’re looking to find the rooting value in either of these films, you’ll have to look pretty hard. During the awards season run-up out here in Hollywood both films got a big push from their studios as “serious” films worthy of Oscar attention and it got each a few nominations from other awards-giving groups (but not in the Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button stratosphere). Now The Reader has made it into the Final Five in the “Best Picture” category of the Academy Awards but, even so, is clearly a long shot. One thing we can settle here and now, though, is which one is worth paying to see in a theater and which one you can wait for the DVD. That’s just how we roll at the Smack so let’s get started…
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In This Corner
In director Stephen Daldry’s and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader, it’s 1958, Berlin, and a sad woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet) starts up a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy Michael Berg (German actor David Kross). The life experience head-start he gets comes with a price. She wants him to read to her. That’s right. She wants him to bring his school books and read out loud to her. At first the reading comes before the sex but, soon, the reading comes first, then the sex. About half-way through the film, things change a lot more than the sex/reading order, secrets are revealed and we are, basically, into an entirely different film that spans many decades into the future. And not joyfully different, mind you. Daldry and Hare are the same people who brought us the lost and depressing film, The Hours.
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In That Corner
In case the title alone isn’t enough to tell you what’s at stake in this film, Doubt opens with a sermon by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the subject of… doubt. Father Flynn is the parish priest of St. Nicholas in the Bronx in this film written and directed by John Patrick Stanley, based on his own play. Right from the get-go, you see that Flynn has his hands full with the nun-from-Hell and school principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who basically doesn’t like the change in the wind that Flynn represents. And, as fate would have it, change has just arrived at the school in 1964 in the form of a single African-American student Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). Flynn has taken a special liking to the boy, helping him adjust, even appointing him an altar boy. But one day he summons the boy to the rectory alone and the boy comes back smelling like wine. The table’s been set for a clash between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius.
Both The Reader and Doubt ask you to feel a degree of sympathy toward the characters played by Kate Winslet and Philip Seymour Hoffman but, as a viewer, I never could muster any. This is not to say that the films are uninvolving but they are certainly unconventional in that regard. The truth is that Kate Winslet’s Hanna messes up her 15-year-old victim’s entire life by taking him into a sexual relationship and the fact that he’s a boy and she’s an older woman may be a fantasy for some people but in no way excuses it. Similarly, Hoffman’s Father Flynn, if guilty of having an improper relationship with a young boy, gets cut no slack because we now feel understanding toward our gay friends. An adult having sex with a teenager is pedophilia, at least by definition, and can’t be forgiven lightly, no matter what the circumstances.
There’s no question that The Reader has a more sweeping look to it. It’s full of the scope you’d expect from a film set in a foreign country over a period of decades. In contrast, Doubt is practically claustrophic in its confinement to the grounds at St. Nicholas. It started as a play and it’s been filmed as a play.
You can’t discount either Streep or Hoffman as actors, they’re always good, but they’re not the best they’ve ever been here. Kate Winslet, however, is a revelation in her film and she gets to play off a fresh face with no expectations in David Kross. Ralph Fiennes plays the older David in this film and he’s a disappointment. There’s no way the kid we see before us grew into this sad sack, no matter how challenging life got for him as a result of his experience.
The doubt in Doubt is contrived and a cheap shot. Either Flynn did it or he didn’t and the film knows but won’t tell us. It’s a faux dilemma that I was unmoved by. So I didn’t admire the character if he did the deed and, if he didn’t, I wished he would have valiantly fought. Either way, this film left me cold. The film wants me to think that maybe, just maybe, Father Flynn is backing down because even the hint of an untrue scandal will tube his career in the Church but, in fact, the truth is more profund and disturbing. Assuming Flynn did it, the Church was as likely to promote him and cover up as we damn well know from the news itself.
On the other hand, The Reader is cold and distanced, and at the end of the day, seems to be saying that sometimes life just gets screwed up and there’s nothing to be done about it. It wants me to feel sorry for a woman who let hundreds of people die and seduced a kid but, hey, she can’t read and she’s sad. Sorry. Pass on that one, too.
Still, we need a winner and because of Kate Winslet’s fearless performance she provides the answer. If these two films are on your list this holiday, don’t check it twice, just go see The Reader.