This is a beauty and the beast story and it tells a hard truth: love does not redeem monsters. We’re so used to thinking of evil as an abhorrence or as something alluring that it’s easy to overlook the everyday middle-ground; that evil can be commonplace, that evil people go about their lives in the millions… that half of them (all of them?) are us. And if there are so many evil people then it stands to reason some people will love them. But love won’t undo anything. That’s what The Reader says. The best you can hope for, if you love an evil person, is that you’ll be honest with yourself, and admit there is evil. If not, what can you hope to learn?
In Germany in the 1950s a teenage boy meets a woman in her thirties. The boy, like every boy, wants sex, but he also wants romance. The woman is amenable to the first. Lucky boy. But then, why is this woman so secretive? And where is she looking when she looks past him? The boy, not knowing anything about the world, doesn’t see her very clearly. He’s consumed with sex. When the woman asks the boy to read to her, he takes this for intimacy. And it is. But it’s the only intimacy she requires of him. Fucking remains fucking. When pressed for nearness, the woman can only respond with spite. Then she leaves him. The boy is heart-broken. But this is not the last time he’ll see her, nor the worst thing she’s ever done. During WWII, the woman was a guard at a Nazi concentration camp.
Kate Winslet looks at the boy, her co-star (David Kross), like a schoolteacher who hates her work. The boy doesn’t see it, but we do. She is not as he pictures her, half matriarch, half whore. She is a worker bee, someone who likes authority. She has a small authority over this boy, and it pleases her. Read to me, she can order. And he does. She is not sentimental about their relationship, but she doesn’t have imagination to see his point of view either. Here is woman who has bleached her heart. She seldom laughs; not because (if only) she knows what she has done, but because she’s largely humourless. It requires a virgin gaze to romanticise her. Anyone who’d had sex before would see her less appealing qualities. But she gets lucky. It’s her lover’s first love, sweeping and oblivious.
The role of her lover is split into two parts; the boy who has the love affair is played by David Kross, the man he grows up to be is played by Ralph Feinnes. The boy is guileless, loving, passionate. The man is none of these. How much is Kate Winslet’s fault? If the boy had not met her, or if he had not met her again, he would have been different. But these are his circumstances. Her circumstances compelled her to commit terrible crimes and to flee from them. The boy runs when he should stay too. But they are not alike. This is because Ralph Feinnes can redeem himself – he has a daughter, someone he loves. The lesson he learns from his tragic affair is that a big enough secret can cut off every possibility of joy. This is not the same as saying if Kate had told the truth she would have been a better person, only that because she didn’t tell the truth she compounded evil with a self-betrayal, and took away any hope she could ever have of saving something in her worth loving.
The phrase “I would never…” hinges a lot on where and when you live. We all like to imagine ourselves as good people, indomitable. But how high have the stakes ever been in our lives? How much have we been tested? If society itself gives in to evil, then it really does fall to us to know right from wrong, because no-one is there to offer a reminder. These were Kate Winslet’s circumstances. Her society said: we will redefine what is good and what is evil. And she went along with it. The boy she fucks knows he would have done likewise. Do we get to judge these people? Or do we count our blessings? Evil is always clearly evil, but evil people aren’t constant; neither are you or I.